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    Lions v Sharks: Why stakes have soared

    2017-03-27 13:17

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The striking improvement of the Jaguares in their second season of Super Rugby has simultaneously cranked up the pressure on the established South African heavyweights in their conference, the Lions and Sharks.

    That development, in turn, has increased the importance of this Saturday’s appetising derby between the SA foes in Johannesburg (17:15, Emirates Airline Park).

    Last season in Africa Conference 2, the Lions and Sharks had it relatively easy in claiming the top two berths and both advancing to quarter-finals (in the Lions’ case, all the way onward to the showpiece against eventual champions the Hurricanes in Wellington).

    Warren Whiteley’s outfit topped the table with 52 points, the Sharks earned 43 points – enough to make the cut as third knockout qualifiers along with the Stormers from across the two “South African” groups – and the Jaguares, conveniently then, were a long way off the pace in third with 22 points as they struggled to adapt to the first-time demands of the tournament.

    But that has changed in 2017, at least thus far, meaning that there is a developing three-horse race in that section for a maximum of two berths in the knockout phase.

    The Jaguares, increasingly adhesive and the Argentinean national team in disguise, are on a three-match winning roll, having convincingly beaten all of the Reds, Cheetahs and Lions in Buenos Aires; one match earlier, they were a little unlucky to lose 32-25 to the still-unbeaten Stormers at Newlands.

    As a result, they are right in the Africa 2 picture in second spot, with 18 points after five games. The Lions are one ahead on 19, and the Sharks one below the South Americans on 17 – a tasty sandwich, unlike the lopsided race at present in Africa 1 where the Stormers are a mile out in front.

    The Lions-Sharks showdown is attractive right now anyway, given that the Lions have earned thumping victories in their last two matches, and the Sharks are on a four-game winning streak.

    So improved were the Durban-based team (after that unpalatable Kings close shave) in their Bloemfontein triumph over a limited but highly-committed Cheetahs side at the weekend, both in physical terms and more varied style of play, that a tense contest seems in prospect – it is not as though the Lions are yet emulating their chutzpah of last season.

    You have to suspect that what the Jaguares ideally want is for one of the Lions or Sharks to win both derbies, rather than cancel each other out by the Jo’burgers winning, say, the home clash and the coastal side the Durban return on the very last day of the 2017 ordinary-round roster (July 15).

    That might be the likeliest scenario for Agustin Creevy and his merry – but tough, uncompromising – men to wriggle into the knockouts for the first time.

    In the Sharks’ favour, as things stand, is that a successful, mild-upset raid of the Big Smoke this weekend would really put them in pole position suddenly for top-placed conference finish.

    Of the three major rivals in the group, they are the only ones presently with six remaining home games left, rather than five, and they end their programme with a timely three in a row at Kings Park, even if all are challenging domestic fixtures (Stormers, Bulls, Lions).

    They are also done with major “touring” already, as their only remaining games outside SA borders are separate once-offs against the Jaguares and Sunwolves.

    The Lions still have a three-match Australian tour to contemplate – Force, Rebels, Brumbies – while the faraway, geographically standalone nature of the Jaguares means they still have two further tours ahead.

    Their first is a three-game programme back on SA turf for a second time this season (Sharks, Bulls, Lions), and then at the rear end of the campaign they must still visit Australia for two matches.

    It’s a considerable disadvantage, hence the likely Jaguares’ keenness for one of their two major South African rivals to pull clear of the other.

    But which one might that be? We should get a healthy suggestion of an answer on Saturday evening.

    A reminder of the 10 remaining ordinary-season games each for the Lions, Jaguares and Sharks:

    Lions (19 points): Sharks (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h), Force (a), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Bulls (h), Kings (h), Sunwolves (h), Sharks (a).

    Jaguares (18 points): Sharks (a), Bulls (a), Lions (a), Sharks (h), Sunwolves (h), Force (h), Brumbies (h), Kings (h), Waratahs (a), Rebels (a).

    Sharks (17 points): Lions (a), Jaguares (h), Rebels (h), Jaguares (a), Force (h), Kings (a), Sunwolves (a), Stormers (h), Bulls (h), Lions (h).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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