Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Still the overall Vodacom Super Rugby
table-toppers with one round of ordinary season remaining, the Lions must go
all out to preserve that status in their final assignment against the Jaguares
in Buenos Aires next Saturday (23:40 SA time).
Theirs is the very last fixture of the round, so they will
have the fillip of knowing exactly what they need to do, by kick-off, to
preserve their loftiest status.
There has understandably been talk of the Johannesburg-based
side fielding a weakened XV at Estadio Jose Amalfitani because of the
debilitating effect of the cross-ocean travel and how it may impact on their
knockout assault – as Africa Conference 2 winners, they are already guaranteed
a home quarter-final, possibly against compatriots the Sharks.
Yet Super Rugby history is littered with examples of how
essential it is to have a “home run” right through the knockout phase to the
coveted overall trophy.
No team has yet managed to successfully make the trek at a
few days’ notice, between Africa and Australasia or the other way around, to
steal the title in a showpiece on enemy soil and they usually get dumped quite
In 2012, the weary Sharks were whipped 37-6 by the Chiefs in
a Hamilton final, three years earlier the same Chiefs, making the journey to
Loftus, were hammered 61-17 by the Bulls, and back in 2001 the Sharks again
found the long trip a bridge too far as they lost 36-6 to the Brumbies in a
So the Lions are potentially – and foolishly? -- looking a
gift horse in the mouth if they prepare a notably second-string combo for battle in Argentina and thus run a
greater risk of being pipped to home final hosting rights by losing to the
Jaguares; it ought to be a tough battle anyway.
There is a better than even chance that they will have been
knocked off top berth overall by the time they run onto the pitch in Buenos
Aires: wins for either of the Chiefs (one point behind them) or Crusaders (two
points) in respective New Zealand derbies on Saturday will ensure that.
Only if the Highlanders have beaten the Chiefs and the
Hurricanes have downed the Crusaders, both without bonus points, would the
Lions probably hold onto pole position even if beaten -- though ideally not too
emphatically -- by the Jaguares.
So the smartest money is on the Lions having to push for a
win, and preparing themselves mentally, and immediately, for that very
As commentator and World Cup-winning former Springbok
flyhalf Joel Stransky pointed out towards the end of their initially laboured
triumph over the flimsy Kings at Emirates Airline Park on Friday night, the
Lions did look as though they were missing some of their more customary
fluency, and it thus seems to make sense for them to treat the Jaguares clash
as a sharpening exercise for the knockouts rather than resting too many key
individuals who may only get a tad more stale.
Backline kingpins like Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe, for
instance, blew hot and cold against the Kings – particularly in the first half,
which coach Johan Ackermann described as one of the team’s worst 40-minute
stints in some time.
A thunderous weekend for all the NZ franchises sent out a
further strong signal that the best chance of a South African name being
engraved on the trophy certainly doesn’t lie in achieving it in the land of the
long white cloud: it is best managed by the Lions after a home semi and final
respectively on the Highveld, surely?
All five New Zealand outfits achieved resounding victories
in the round, including four against hapless Australian foes.
According to Aussie television pundits, this was the first
weekend since 2005 in which all of their teams have suffered reverses.
Meanwhile the Stormers, give them their due, ensured their
own home quarter-final by adding a 22-3 victory over the Force to their earlier
Aussie tour win against the Rebels for a 10/10 points haul Down Under.
But they still look hugely short of genuine title material,
I suggest, and run the danger of being undercooked in certain respects for the
knockouts given their complete absence of New Zealand opposition thus far in 2016
– that is about to change.
The Bulls stayed at the races for the next few days with a
suitably urgent dismantling of the Sunwolves, but are quite likely still to go
into their closing derby against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein knowing that
their challenge is over – that will be the case if the Sharks automatically pip
them to a ticket by downing the Japanese side at Kings Park on Friday night.
Like the Stormers, the injury-plagued Sharks have shown too
few signs recently that they can be considered strong challengers for the main
silverware, though hope spring eternal …
*Quarter-finals (home teams first) if the matches were
played based on present table positions: Lions v Sharks, Chiefs v Hurricanes,
Stormers v Highlanders, Brumbies v Crusaders.
fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Waratahs, 09:35; Reds v Rebels, 11:45;
Sharks v Sunwolves, 19:00. Saturday: Crusaders v Hurricanes, 07:15; Highlanders
v Chiefs, 09:35; Brumbies v Force, 11:45; Stormers v Kings, 17:05; Cheetahs v
Bulls, 19:15; Jaguares v Lions, 23:40.
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing