Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Lions, at the point in Super Rugby where all but two labouring Australian teams in the competition have shifted beyond the halfway mark of ordinary season, once again stick out as South Africa’s lone beacon of genuine title hope.
Last season’s runners-up come off a weekend where they crucially earned the desired result against the Jaguares at Emirates Airline Park despite being some way below their A-game … and then just as importantly saw other compatriots notably falter a day later.
Especially beneficial to Johan Ackermann’s charges after their hard-earned Friday-nighter was seeing Africa 2 conference rivals the Sharks stutter their way to an awfully disappointing 9-9 Durban draw with the limited Melbourne Rebels on Saturday – the sort of game you would only store on your PVR if you were some sort of masochist.
The major turning point – and frankly one which deserves to see the player in question have any Springbok midfield chance during June downgraded for the sheer costliness and foolhardiness of his actions – was when big Andre Esterhuizen produced a dangerous dump-tackle that left little option but for him to be red-carded in the 17th minute.
That was all the motivation the underdog visitors needed to sense the prospect of a decent outcome for them; Esterhuizen’s folly came on top of already inconvenient pre-match disruption to the Sharks backline when Kobus van Wyk was a late pull-out and their sprightly outside centre Lukhanyo Am had to shift to right wing.
But that was still only limited mitigation for a generally zest-lacking Sharks showing, and frittering away two or possibly even three log points could come back to bite them very badly in the run-in to the knockout phase.
It means that the Lions (32 points from eight matches) now sport a commanding eight-point lead over the Sharks (24) and even more assuring 12 over the Jaguares (20) – and their two main rivals in the group meet in Buenos Aires this Saturday, whereas the Lions should fancy their chances in their Aussie tour opener against the Force in Perth.
The Jo’burgers, with seven victories, are in a better position in that regard than they were after the corresponding first eight fixtures in 2016, when they boasted six; they had already suffered losses to the Highlanders away and Crusaders at home.
But this season they are in the fortunate position of not running into NZ teams until the knockouts, and the remaining roster is as follows: Force (a), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Bulls (h), Kings (h), Sunwolves (h) and Sharks (a).
That is not the worst sequence of games you will ever tackle – the Aussie sides are collectively looking at their lamest ever -- and despite three contrastingly enviable NZ outfits currently showing more points than they do, the Lions, increasingly mature and consistently determined, still have a realistic stab at best finish overall in 2017 and a possible home final.
An additional boost to the Lions just in the scrap for broader SA supremacy (and best seedings in the quarter-finals) was the Stormers’ rather hapless surrender to the Crusaders in the first of their three taxing fixtures in New Zealand.
It must be a long time since the Capetonians last experienced a first half as traumatic as the one they suffered in Christchurch, with the ‘Saders blitzing their way to a 36-3 lead and revelling in the defensive generosity and disorganisation of their foes.
So it was really “game over” from that point – the hosts decided at the break that the imperious Kieran Read could safely be subbed, for instance – and the Stormers were left to simply try to salvage some pride after the proverbial lord mayor’s show.
That they pretty much did so, sharing the second half 21-21 on the scoreboard, was something to salvage from the wreckage, and it is true that some of the officiating against them was cruel to say the least.
Still, with successive losses, injuries increasingly creeping in and the Highlanders and Hurricanes immediately ahead on their overseas trek, the Stormers are looking less and less likely to be in the main title hunt, although a third successive home quarter-final remains a strong prospect given the limited rival quality in their conference.
The Bulls stay a distant 12 points behind them after leaving it late to repel the Cheetahs at Loftus and still looking far too toothless and predictable as an attacking factor …
Next round of fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Stormers, 09:35. Saturday: Chiefs v Sunwolves, 09:35; Reds v Waratahs, 11:45; Force v Lions, 13:55; Cheetahs v Crusaders, 17:15; Kings v Rebels, 19:30; Jaguares v Sharks, 21:40. Sunday: Brumbies v Blues, 08:05. Byes: Bulls, Hurricanes.
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