Cape Town – It hardly matters, in the greater scheme of things, that the Lions nearly let slip a massive cushion in their thrilling Currie Cup derby against the Blue Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.
In the final analysis, it was very much “job done” in Pretoria as Johan Ackermann’s charges took a major stride toward securing rights to a possible home final.
Leading by an almost unbelievable margin of 30-0 at the home of their Highveld rivals shortly before half-time, they reckoned without a gallant Bulls fightback which, at one stage, even looked like translating into a famous victory against overwhelming odds.
But then a late penalty goal by the unerring Marnitz Boshoff finally took the sting from the home-town rally as the Lions – almost, but not quite, punched out -- secured a 36-28 result in their favour.
They were actually outscored 4-3 in try terms, and the Bulls were fitting recipients of a consolation bonus point on that basis ... but if you had offered the outcome to the Johannesburg-based outfit upfront, they would probably have accepted it with some glee.
The fact is that they have now become the sole unbeaten side, with four round-robin fixtures yet to play by each team, and opened up a four-point lead over the Bulls at the top of the table.
It is probably going to take a slump of some substance for the Lions not to enter the semis as the best-placed side, and with the showpiece game also beckoning brightly at Emirates Airline Park in late October.
The Lions last staged the final in the Big Smoke in the 2011 season, when they thrashed a Springbok-laden Sharks side 42-16, and have not won the domestic title since.
Having now clinched arguably their most dangerous remaining fixture on paper ahead of the latest round, they face a run-in of three home games out of four, with a lone trip to Bloemfontein required to tackle the Cheetahs.
The home clashes are against the Sharks, Griquas and last season’s champions – their narrow conquerors in the Newlands final – Western Province.
It is the exact opposite scenario for the Bulls, facing three games on the road – WP this Friday, plus Sharks and Pumas – and just one more in Pretoria (EP Kings).
The cat could also be set among the pigeons, regarding the battle for home semi-finals, if Province knock over their great rivals from the north at Newlands, which would also avenge the 47-29 drubbing they experienced in the earlier meeting between the sides at Loftus when the Bulls ran the ball to quite lethal effect.
That would open the door for the champions to grab a Cape Town fixture in the knockout phase; they are currently five points adrift of the Bulls in third.
This weekend’s worst casualties were the Sharks, who had an array of their 1980s and 1990s legends in the house at Kings Park as they crashed 37-27 to Province, despite the advantage of a seven-point lead at the break.
The blue-and-whites showed overdue glimpses of their prowess of old in the second half to earn a full house of log points through a four-try haul – just the tonic ahead of the big meeting with the Bulls on the night the World Cup begins (England v Fiji at Twickenham) a few minutes after the final whistle at Newlands.
As for the Sharks, Joe Pietersen fluffing a penalty after the final siren meant they couldn’t even secure a losing bonus point for their troubles, and they are involved in a grim dogfight with the Cheetahs (and maybe also the Pumas?) simply to crack the last four from here.
Next round of matches (home teams first):
Friday: Pumas v EP Kings, 17:00; WP v Blue Bulls, 19:00. Saturday: Golden Lions v Sharks, 14:30; Cheetahs v Griquas, 17:05.
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