Lions: Top of an unfair competition?
Wellington - The tournament-leading Lions host the bottom-of-the-table Kings in the penultimate round of Super Rugby on Friday as the regular season edges towards what some players and officials say is an unfair conclusion.
The Johannesburg-based Lions, traditionally closer to the bottom of the table than the top, continued a remarkable transformation when a 37-10 win over the Sharks last weekend made them the first of six teams to qualify for the playoffs.
From their unfamiliar perch they are able to look down on a competition in which three other teams in South Africa, two in Australia and four in New Zealand continue to vie for the other playoff spots.
But the Lions' success is also seen by some fans as a sign of a competition which is out of balance and a playoffs system which rewards mediocrity.
While the Lions have fashioned a 10-win, three-loss record so far this season, their resume has been substantially padded by matches against the tournament's weakest teams. Friday's match is their second against the 17th-placed Kings who have won only two games and conceded 44 points per match this season.
They have also had matches against Japan's Sunwolves, who are level with the Kings in last place, and Argentina's Jaguares, who have won only three matches in their tournament debut.
In their favour, the Lions have beaten two-time champions and current New Zealand conference leaders the Chiefs on their home ground in Hamilton, and the Auckland-based Blues in Johannesburg.
The overwhelming impression is that the South African conference is considerably weaker than New Zealand's, which contains four teams that will make the playoffs. The Lions, who have an unassailable lead in the Africa 2 conference, and the Cape Town-based Stormers, who have a nine-point lead in the Africa 1 conference, are favoured by matches mostly against domestic rivals.
The Stormers are likely to clinch the second Africa home playoff position his weekend when they play the Western Force in Perth - without having played a New Zealand team during the regular season.
The same situation applies to the Australian conference, where the Waratahs and Brumbies are likely vying for the only playoff spot still available to an Australian team. Both teams have 39 points which would only be good enough on a combined table for seventh and eighth.
Meanwhile, in the New Zealand conference, which contains four of the top-five sides, teams face two matches during the regular season against each of those top-ranked rivals.
Only the top team in New Zealand will gain a home playoff, while the three others will have to travel for their qualifying finals.
All Blacks hooker Dane Coles recently criticised the tournament format, saying the competition should be reduced in size and simplified to ensure all teams play each other once and only the best teams reach the playoffs.
Andy Marinos, head of the tournament's governing body SANZAAR, has already indicated the tournament will likely continue to be enlarged rather than reduced, but said any future moves would have to preserve Super Rugby's "credibility."
Arguments over the format and future of the competition can't overshadow the incredible transformation of the Lions under coach Johan Ackermann, who took charge two years ago.
"In 2014 we were 12th, last season we (just) missed the playoffs and now we are in the playoffs, so our growth has definitely been upwards," Ackermann said. "But we will not have achieved anything if we do not get to that final."
In other weekend matches which will affect the playoff races, the Hurricanes play the Waratahs in Sydney, the Brumbies meet the Blues in Auckland, the Crusaders host the Melbourne Rebels and the Highlanders face the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The Waratahs also have to face the Blues next weekend in a tough end to the regular season, while the Brumbies meet the Force in the 17th and final round.