Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – When you have thumped a team who were previously unbeaten at their own stronghold by 36 points, a sudden, lengthy interruption to the relevant competition hardly seems a welcome development for the victorious outfit.
But even if their surge has been rudely arrested by the break for Test combat, the Lions at least go “on hold” for the entire month of June in Vodacom Super Rugby knowing that they have built up a superb cushion for an assault on the silverware -- particularly courtesy of what was arguably their best showing of the campaign in the 56-20 derby outcome against the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.
For one thing, that result was a statement that they remain hungry contenders for the important top spot overall – clearing the way for tantalising rights to a home final -- at the end of ordinary season, which remains three rounds from completion (in mid-July).
Only the Crusaders (45) boast more than their 42 points and there is a compelling case for suggesting the Lions’ run-in is easier: home games against the Sharks and Kings, and last-round clash with the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The New Zealand franchise, meanwhile, are yet to tackle the Chiefs (away), Rebels (home) and Hurricanes (home) – most of those opponents are presently better placed than the foes still awaiting Warren Whiteley and company and the two Kiwi derbies look especially perilous dates for the ‘Saders.
Of course the Lions do have to worry about more than just the Crusaders from the land of the long white cloud; the Chiefs level-peg with them on 42 points, and the Hurricanes (40) and Highlanders (38) also lurk thereabouts.
But it is tempting nevertheless to venture that if the Lions win all three remaining fixtures – the home derby against the Sharks immediately upon tournament resumption will be pivotal – a home final will be theirs to bank provided that they can progress all the way through the knockouts.
One thing looks even likelier: a home semi-final for them (assuming they first negotiate an Emirates Airline Park quarter-final), which would mean the first time since 2013 that a South African side has managed one.
For the Lions to fall out of a guaranteed top-two spot on the overall table at the finish of ordinary season, either of domestic rivals the Stormers (36 points) or Sharks (35) are going to have to make up a fair bit more than one victory in a fast-dwindling programme – the Jo’burgers will have to lose twice in three games themselves, probably, to open up that prospect.
For an Australian team to end second overall and thus grab rights to a potential semi, it will require an even more superhuman effort in the final three rounds, as both Aussie conference pace-setters the Brumbies and Waratahs are on a fairly distant 34 points.
In terms of their own conference (Africa Conference 2), the Lions must he hugely favoured now to win it, given that the Sharks have a shortfall of seven points.
On present form, even if the Lions were to unexpectedly lose at home to Gary Gold’s charges, it is hard to see them failing to secure a losing bonus point, so a tight Sharks triumph would probably still only close the gap to, say, four points with two games each to play.
The Stormers – even as they continued to mostly “box ugly” against the Cheetahs at Newlands last Saturday and look some way off title shots -- have also taken a quite forceful grip on Africa Conference 1 at the expense of the Bulls.
Their advantage is four points on the men from Pretoria, although some lingering hope for Bulls fans is the fact that the Capetonians must still negotiate two overseas matches (Rebels and Force) to their one (Jaguares).
My forecast is for the Lions to comfortably top the South African pecking order after ordinary season, with at least a home semi beckoning, the Stormers to bank a home quarter-final by winning the other “SA” conference, and the Sharks to earn a wildcard away date in the last eight.
But don’t completely write off the Bulls’ knockout aspirations yet …
*Quarter-final berths if they were decided on rankings today: Crusaders v Sharks, Lions v Highlanders, Stormers v Hurricanes, Brumbies v Chiefs.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing