5 matches to decide SA's Super Rugby fate

    2016-05-24 13:20

    Lloyd Burnard - Sport24

    Cape Town - The Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks are fighting it out for three Super Rugby playoff places. 

    And, after last weekend's action, that battle could hardly be tighter

    The Bulls and the Stormers are dead level on points in Africa Conference 1, both with four matches to play, while the Lions are in pole position in Africa Conference 2 - two points ahead of the Sharks with a game in hand. 

    The winners of each Conference will secure home quarter-finals, while the other playoff spot will go to the next best placed team in the South African Group. 

    With one round of fixtures remaining before the June international break, this is how the teams currently line up in the South African Group (remember, the Conference leaders automatically occupy the top two positions in the Group):

    1. Lions - 37 pts after 11 matches

    2. Bulls - 32 pts after 11 matches

    3. Sharks - 35 pts after 12 matches

    4. Stormers - 32 pts after 11 matches

    The Sharks have a bye this weekend, while the Stormers host the Cheetahs - a match they are expected to win. 

    After the international break, each team will have three matches before the playoff places are decided. 

    For each of the four SA teams left in contention, there are matches that stand out as potential season deciders. 

    Here are five that have the potential to be make-or-break.

    Bulls v Lions - May 28, 17:10

    We don't have to wait long for the first of our blockbusters. The Bulls are the only side left in the competition not to have lost at home, but the Lions are considered by most to be the best side in the country.

    It is a match that will have major implications on the playoff race for all four South African teams.

    A Lions win would see them open up a lead of at least six points over the Sharks in Africa 2 while it would allow the Stormers to reclaim top spot in Africa 1.

    A Bulls win, though, would give the Sharks a sniff of taking top spot in Africa 2 when they meet the Lions in the first week back after the international break. But that result would also make it more difficult for the Sharks to claim the wildcard position, with the Bulls and Stormers edging ahead of them after the weekend should the Stormers beat the Cheetahs as expected. 

    Nothing will be decided after this match, but it is going to have a big say in how the final South African Group log looks. 

    Rebels v Stormers - July 2, 11:45

    This may not seem like such a daunting task, but it is the most difficult match the Stormers have left in the group stages. If they win their remaining four matches (Cheetahs, Force, Rebels, Kings) the Stormers will surely make the playoffs, which makes this match against the Rebels potentially their biggest hurdle. 

    The Stormers were handed the perfect draw at the start of the season - their only other match on their Australian tour is against the Force - but they have made things as difficult as possible for themselves over the past few weeks. 

    They need to finish the season strong, and the other three South African sides will be watching this one closely hoping that the men from Melbourne can do them a favour.

    Lions v Sharks - July 2, 17:10

    Regardless of what happens in this weekend's Bulls v Lions clash, this is surely the game that will decide the Sharks' season.

    If they lose then their best hope of making the playoffs will be through the wildcard position. 

    That also means that victory for the Lions will all but secure them a home quarter-final, though they do have a tricky little trip to Argentina to deal with. 

    Jaguares v Bulls - July 2, 23:40

    While they have not threatened as much as was initially expected, the Jaguares are still a seriously difficult side to beat on their own soil. 

    This will be the last of the Bulls' potential banana peels, with matches against the Sunwolves and Cheetahs remaining. 

    If they lose, and especially if that is coupled with them coming unstuck against the Lions this weekend, then the door could open for the Sharks to secure the wildcard spot should the Lions win Africa 2 as expected. 

    Jaguares v Lions - July 16, 23:40

    They may very well have the Conference wrapped up by then, but if they don't then the Lions will have a nervy trip to Buenos Aires in their final match.

    The Sharks host the Sunwolves the night before in their season-closer and should secure maximum points. 

    It may be a dead-rubber, but it could also be the biggest match of the Lions' season.

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