Cape Town – Surprise, surprise ... there are the Sharks and Western Province, back dominating Currie Cup rugby.
Many changes could still happen, of course, given that the 2014 competition is not quite a third of the way through the pre-knockout phase, but it is interesting nevertheless that the two coastal powers have already seized just a hint of a grip.
It will only increase speculation that the pair may be set for a third successive meeting in the final this year, something that has not happened since the Blue Bulls and Cheetahs met in each of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 showpieces.
Make no mistake, the spirited and enterprising Lions – currently hamstrung by injury woes in the key position of flyhalf -- will not be sounding any panic buttons just because their trip to the Cape on Saturday saw them fail to register a single log point as they were beaten 27-14 by Province.
Coincidentally Juan de Jongh’s side triumphed by the same margin that they did against these foes at Newlands in the round-robin phase last season, when it was 36-23, and although they failed by one try to get a full house of five points, keeping the Lions out of losing bonus point terrain themselves may prove just as important in the longer term.
The game was certainly a lot closer than the margin suggests, with the Lions commanding big chunks of quality possession and territory, but WP’s fan-out defence exceptional and their counter-attacking instincts just as sharp.
But it is a fact that after the third round, the Lions, who had earned two rampant wins ahead of this fixture, have been knocked down to third on the overall table (10 points) with Province (14) and the Sharks (13) the only remaining unbeaten outfits.
Johan Ackermann’s charges still look highly likely semi-final material – and from there anything’s possible, as ever -- although a result like this one hasn’t helped their quest to bank a first home final since 2011, when they sensationally thrashed the Sharks 42-16.
Yes, the Lions get an opportunity to avenge the loss when they play WP again in Johannesburg on September 13, but also have the drawback of playing their only game against the Sharks (who are in the opposite pool) away, whereas Province will tackle the defending champions at Newlands in their own once-off in the last round of ordinary season.
Frankly, the trophy-holders have not started the 2014 campaign convincingly at all – yet have still won three games out of three, so expect a few more clear-cut victories when they rediscover some sparkle on attack.
It is a poor show that they came so desperately close to a Durban reverse on Saturday to a Cheetahs outfit now so much weaker on paper than a few weeks ago when they were Super Rugby strugglers anyway.
Sharks CEO John Smit admitted as much on Twitter (@JohnSmit123) following the 19-16 close shave: “Not the best game of rugby by us tonight and we were pretty fortunate to eventually beat the Cheetahs but that said it’s a win!”
They have a dangerous assignment in Nelspruit on Friday night, where they must tackle Jimmy Stonehouse’s feisty Pumas -- now sporting two wins from two at Mbombela Stadium and in the semis zone in fourth spot -- but at least complacency ought to be absent in the KZN ranks after the latest sterile showing at Kings Park.
Meanwhile the Blue Bulls showed all the signs of a team fragile in confidence as they laboured to put away the limited but game EP Kings at Loftus: it was perhaps to be expected following successive hammerings at the hands of the Lions and WP.
But pull it off they did, and now there’s a repeat of the north-south derby just a fortnight after the last one as the Streeptruie head to Pretoria: the Bulls should be up for it, even if they still lack a cutting edge or desire in ball-in-hand terms and continue to be just too upright collectively at the breakdown.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first):
Friday: Pumas v Sharks, 19:10. Saturday: Griquas v Cheetahs, 15:00; Blue Bulls v Western Province, 17:05; EP Kings v Golden Lions, 19:10.
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