Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Lions, bracing for three key tour matches in Australia, may seldom get a better chance than this year to secure a potential, coveted home final in professional-era Super Rugby.
Nominally the Super 10 champions of 1993, when the rugby landscape was still so different, the Johannesburg-based franchise are firmly at the races - having played eight of their 15 ordinary-season matches- in the quest to host the showpiece in 2017.
Remember that it is historically vital to bank rights to a home final if your opponents in it have had to travel across the Indian Ocean - either way - to try to snatch it as this has never successfully occurred before in the modern form of the competition.
The Lions ended an agonising second on the overall table last year, after head coach Johan Ackermann made that much-debated decision to field a second-string side against the victorious Jaguares in Buenos Aires in the last round of ordinary season, meaning that they eventually had to “cross the ditch” for the final and were duly beaten by the Hurricanes.
But the scene is even more invitingly set than it was at the equivalent period (about to enter round 10) in 2016 for Warren Whiteley and company to top the overall pile and get a huge sniff of a showpiece at Emirates Airline Park on August 5.
They are one of four teams - three from New Zealand, surprise, surprise - significantly clear of any others right now in the hunt for top spot regardless of the various conferences.
The Lions are on 32 points, only one shy of each of the Hurricanes and Chiefs, and four (so call it one win?) short of the Crusaders, who are the only remaining unbeaten team.
As mentioned on Sunday, the Lions are already one win better off (seven) than they were after completing eight fixtures last year, and there are enough favourable elements to their run-in to suggest that they can improve on last season’s 11-out-of-15 win record and thus have an even better chance of premier slot overall ahead of the knockout phase.
They are also in the midst of a campaign which sees them have the considerable advantage of not playing any NZ side in ordinary season, a situation that will not repeat itself as the competition alters format yet again from 2018 onward.
Primarily on those grounds, virtually every game left for the Lions looks winnable on paper, frankly, even if dips and potholes are always very possible in the remaining roster.
That includes their already-underway mission to Australia, which sees them start against the Force on Saturday and then play the Rebels and Brumbies too.
A few years ago, you would struggle to insert any South African side as favourites in all three matches on an Aussie tour, but such is the weakness of the Oz-specific conference this year that the Lions have a good stab at coming home with a 100 percent record.
The Brumbies in Canberra looks the toughest of the trio, but even they lack the lustre and aura of old and top the Aussie pool despite only three wins from eight starts.
If the Lions can manage a clean sweep – or at least a minimum of two from three – a further strong salvo of success looks likely in Johannesburg dates against all of the Bulls, Kings and Sunwolves, before they end their programme away to the Sharks.
In other words, the Lions could feasibly be sitting on 12 or 13 victories before they even go to Durban for the final game of ordinary season.
Bear in mind that all of the best three New Zealand teams, as things stand, have considerably harder run-ins as they will encounter each other on several occasions, so there should be a fair bit of “neutralising” going on – to the huge benefit, potentially, of the Lions if they are keeping their own eye properly on the ball.
The Crusaders, for example, must still face the Hurricanes both home and away, as well as Chiefs and Highlanders once each.
Ackermann’s charges, exploiting the dubious – many would say absurd - structure of the competition in its current model, really do have a wonderful opportunity to make their path to the silverware so much smoother this year than last, when it was a rueful case of so near, yet so far ...
Remaining fixtures for the four current best-performing sides in Super Rugby:
Crusaders (36 points from eight matches): Cheetahs (a), Bulls (a), Hurricanes (h), Chiefs (a), Rebels (a), Highlanders (h), Hurricanes (a)
Hurricanes (33 points from eight matches): Stormers (h), Crusaders (a), Cheetahs (h), Bulls (a), Force (a), Chiefs (h), Crusaders (h)
Chiefs (33 points from eight matches): Sunwolves (h), Reds (h), Crusaders (h), Blues (a), Waratahs (h), Hurricanes (a), Brumbies (h)
Lions (32 points from eight matches): Force (a), Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Bulls (h), Kings (h), Sunwolves (h), Sharks (a).
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