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    Home final: Lions can still dream

    2016-05-24 15:57

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – What price the Lions winning all four of their remaining ordinary season games in Vodacom Super Rugby 2016?

    It’s a reasonably tall order, regardless of the make-up of the quartet of specific obstacles still to be negotiated by Warren Whiteley and company: so far their best sequence of victories has been three this year, a phase when they saw off the Sharks in Durban (24-9), Stormers in Johannesburg (29-22) and then Kings in Port Elizabeth (45-10).

    But if Johan Ackermann’s in-form charges can save their best for last and somehow pull that feat off, they will be in with a healthy chance of overall log-topping status and attached rights to staging the final at Emirates Airline Park if they can advance through the KO phase all the way to the August 6 showpiece.

    That would simultaneously stir sentimental memories among veteran supporters of the red-and-whites of the final of the fledgling 1993 Super 10 competition, when Transvaal pipped Auckland 20-17 at the famous Doornfontein venue.

    With just four rounds left – three of them after the tournament takes a month’s break following this weekend – it may well be safe to say the Lions (37 points, 11 matches) are the country’s last remaining prospect of ending top of the entire pile.

    While the Sharks are just two points adrift on 35 points (12 matches), they have a bye yet to negotiate this weekend, so the drawback of having only three further matches, after the recess, in which to eclipse the Lions in Africa Conference 2 and – a much, much longer shot – try to maintain a challenge for first-placed finish overall.

    The Bulls and Stormers, in the other Africa conference, are locked on 32 points each and also probably too far off the pace now to contemplate premier status competition-wide at the finish of ordinary season.

    Smart money, then, rests pretty heavily on one of four sprightly, high-riding New Zealand teams ending at the top, especially as the Chiefs (42) and Crusaders (41) presently occupy slots one and two from a points-accumulation point of view.

    That pair are effectively one win each, in rough terms, ahead of the Lions, who must also worry about the Highlanders (similarly on 37 points) and Hurricanes (36) right around them.

    But the Lions should still dare to dream of teeing up rights to a home final, something that will escalate in likelihood significantly if they can overcome the formidable hurdle of the Bulls – still not beaten at Loftus this season – in a Pretoria derby on Saturday (17:05).

    The untimely loss of flyhalf Elton Jantjies to a broken finger for the cross-Hennops clash is a blow of some magnitude to the Lions, though it seems he will be fit again in time for at least some, deserved service to the Springbok cause against Ireland during June and then be back at his string-pulling post for the Lions for the remainder of the Super Rugby run-in.

    If they decide to install Marnitz Boshoff to the vacant No 10 berth on Saturday, however, they will at least do so in the knowledge that he is an experienced 27-year-old campaigner with plenty of prior exposure to Super Rugby and a strong place-kicking boot when striking the ball sweetly.

    Knock over the Bulls, and the Lions will have to be taken seriously in New Zealand as potential stumbling blocks to that country hosting a second Super Rugby final in as many years.

    Their remaining games after that see them entertain the Sharks in another derby humdinger (keep in mind that they won with some daylight in the corresponding Durban meeting on April 9), then play the highly beatable Kings, and end with a trip to Buenos Aires to tackle the Jaguares on July 16 – the very last match of ordinary season, so they will know exactly what they need to do if it is still relevant.

    In the Lions’ favour, if they can keep on winning, is that several “neutralising” New Zealand derbies are still to take place in the climax period of ordinary season, so there is going to be some sacrificing of points by heavyweights in those.

    Examples are the Chiefs playing both the Crusaders and Highlanders, and the Hurricanes taking on the Highlanders and Crusaders.

    Also, while 2012 and 2013 champions the Chiefs currently head the pack, three of their four last matches are away (the same applies to the Highlanders) so they can feel far from comfortable or complacent on their lofty perch.

    Here are the remaining fixtures for all of the current top five teams in the competition from a “points gained” perspective:

    Chiefs (played 11, 42 points): Waratahs (a), Crusaders (h), Reds (a), Highlanders (a)

    Crusaders (played 11, 41 points): Blues (a), Chiefs (a), Rebels (h), Hurricanes (h)

    Lions (played 11, 37 points): Bulls (a), Sharks (h), Kings (h), Jaguares (a)

    Highlanders (played 11, 37 points): Hurricanes (a), Kings (a), Jaguares (a), Chiefs (h)

    Hurricanes (played 11, 36 points): Highlanders (h), Blues (h), Waratahs (a), Crusaders (a)

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 17 February 2018
    • Stormers v Jaguares, Cape Town 15:05
    • Lions v Sharks, Emirates Airlines Park 17:15
    Friday, 23 February 2018
    • Highlanders v Blues, 08:35
    • Rebels v Reds, AAMI Park 10:45
    Saturday, 24 February 2018
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 06:15
    • Crusaders v Chiefs, 08:35
    • Waratahs v Stormers, Allianz Stadium 10:45
    • Lions v Jaguares, Emirates Airlines Park 15:05
    • Bulls v Hurricanes, Loftus Versfeld 17:15

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