Lions seek Cheetahs double
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Remember that awkward period up to 2005 when the Lions and Cheetahs were lumped together as the Cats in the former Super 12?
It wasn’t exactly a marriage made in heaven, given the rather obvious Gauteng-Free State provincial divide and rivalry – certainly reflected in separate Currie Cup teams – and the fact that the combined squad had to divide its time both in training and match terms between Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
The arrangement came to a merciful end when the ever-altering competition became the Super 14 in 2006 and they were split into independent entities once more. (For that season, the Cheetahs brand was first introduced, whilst the Big Smoke franchise remained the Cats until a name change to Lions in 2007.)
Subsequently, neither team has ever truly set Super Rugby alight, often ending campaigns simply trying to be better-placed than the other somewhere in the nether regions of the table – and the Lions also had that controversial relegated year in 2013 when the Kings seized their place.
The Cheetahs did have one year in which they punched admirably above their more traditional weight, earning a maiden berth in the six-team finals series of that 2013 season.
Two years on, the Lions – currently eighth overall – have a fighting chance of sneaking their own playoffs spot for the first time in the conference era, with the Cheetahs sadly now also-rans.
Under the circumstances, it is hugely important for Johan Ackermann’s charges to cash in on their conference rivals’ relative disarray: the Cheetahs are presently missing all of talismen Willie le Roux, pocket battleship Heinrich Brussow and contrastingly mammoth front-row ball-carrier Coenie Oosthuizen.
The Lions enter Saturday’s Johannesburg derby (17:05 kick-off) not only off a much-needed bye, but with an infinitely cleaner bill of squad health than their visitors.
So a slip-up here would be seriously detrimental to their top-six aspirations, albeit that South African derbies are famously (infamously?) renowned for a noticeable lack of favours: if the under-staffed Cheetahs were to successfully raid Emirates Airline Park it wouldn’t be the first time a side out of the title picture played wrecker to a compatriot still with dreams in that regard.
In fact, the Lions would do well to target a four-try bonus point at home as well, given that they currently sport the fewest bonus points – one – of all the teams in Super Rugby.
As a result they may discover upon completion of ordinary season that, like last year with the Western Force, even nine wins (the Lions presently have five) isn’t necessarily enough to guarantee advancement to the playoffs.
The Cheetahs could have an even bigger role to play in the Lions’ finals series quest, because these teams have not met yet at all this season, and the follow-up fixture in Bloemfontein on May 23 could have equal importance for Warren Whiteley and company if they are still in contention by then.
Whilst the Free Staters are capable of upsetting most sides on a good day for them, those two matches nevertheless stand out, arguably, as likeliest wins for the Jo’burgers: all of their other remaining matches are against sides in the top half of the overall log and thus gunning for the playoffs themselves.
Defeat for the Lions this weekend?
A near-mortal blow, I suspect ...
*Here are all the Lions’ remaining matches: Cheetahs (h), Bulls (a), Highlanders (h), Brumbies (h), Cheetahs (a), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), last-round bye.
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