Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The quarter-finals of Vodacom
Super Rugby 2016 only underlined just how superior the Lions have been to any
other South African team in both playing style and performance.
While they advanced to the semis with a
pleasing bit to spare from their Highveld contest with seven-time champions the
Crusaders (42-25), compatriots the Sharks and Stormers were blown rather violently
out of the water by other New Zealand powerhouses the Hurricanes and Chiefs
Observers in this country who wish the best
for all our sides must have thought things could hardly get worse on Saturday
when the Sharks were thrashed 41-0 in Wellington - where a hurricane of a
weather-related kind was just one further obstacle to deal with - but you
might well argue that they did in the late kick-off at Newlands.
The margin was a wee bit narrower at 39
points, but when you consider that the Stormers were at home against the Mooloo
Men, crashing 60-21 was perhaps the bleakest SA aspect of the weekend’s
last-eight roster in the final analysis.
Fears that the Stormers would be caught
cold, and not just by the mid-winter chill at their supposed stronghold,
considering that the tournament’s increasingly dubious format precluded them
(phew?) from playing any NZ teams prior to the knockout phase certainly came home
They were badly outwitted, out-skilled and
disappointingly even out-muscled too much at times by a collectively marvellous
Chiefs combo ... and one operating without certain key-figure absentees, into the
The outcome was, naturally, an unpalatable
send-off to Saracens for Schalk Burger, one of the genuinely great servants of
Newlands rugby over a 13-year period, although hopefully Stormers fans would
have been mature and magnanimous enough to put their depression over the result
to one side in admiration of the durable loose forward’s one-franchise career
on these shores.
Burger himself is also philosophical and battle-wise
enough to know that sometimes your troops are simply blitzed by a hugely better
foe; he was one of the more stubborn bastions in attempting to stem the flow of
points at the wrong end of the park.
Overall the Stormers looked callow and
bewildered for major portions of the match, so it is very little comfort to
their fan base going forward that one of their most senior and consistently up-and-at-‘em
players for well over a decade is finally off to new pastures, potentially
aggravating their vulnerability in uncertain times for SA rugby as a whole.
Thank goodness, then, for the Lions keeping
national pride in the competition - with the greater demands of the Rugby
Championship fast looming - from disappearing down the plughole.
What was especially impressive about their
five-tries-to-three win at Emirates Airline Park was the more resolute
defensive relish and structure - needed, because the Crusaders had decent
attacking passages too - than had been evident when they lost 43-37 to the same
opponents earlier in the season.
But the Lions also stuck resolutely to
their own up-tempo, crowd-pleasing game-plan with ball in hand, and while
several of their group of Springboks from the series against Ireland excelled,
men like the turbo-powered inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg (dovetailing
brilliantly in midfield with Lionel Mapoe) and beavering hooker Malcolm Marx effectively
issued further appeals for green and gold call-ups.
The Lions’ reward for this display, which
helped to quell the reservations in some circles about coach Johan Ackermann’s
decision not to send his A-team to Argentina last week, is another home date in
the semis with the Highlanders this Saturday.
There will be every likelihood of bookies
installing the Lions as fairly clear favourites, partly given that the side
from Dunedin have had perhaps the most prodigious of travel of all teams in the
spell since the June Test window - and now fly long-haul to South Africa
On Friday the Highlanders edged their
quarter-final against the Brumbies in Canberra, the week before that they
hosted the Chiefs, and the two earlier rounds had seen them play in Buenos
Aires and Port Elizabeth respectively.
History tells you that such a
globe-trotting itinerary usually comes back to bite you pretty hard at vital
late stages of Super Rugby.
If the Lions can get through the fixture,
they automatically become the first South African finalists of the “conference
era” since the Sharks got that far in 2012; they were drubbed 37-6 by the
It would also put them in line to be possible
first SA champions since the last of three Bulls titles in 2010.
No doubt the Lions, while not wishing to
take their eyes off their own still formidable task next weekend, will be
willing a Chiefs victory in the other semi-final against the Hurricanes at the
Cake Tin, because that would ensure a Jo’burg showpiece a week later if they
A final in New Zealand? Eina, it would take a brave soul to back
a South African team to win that under present circumstances.
Even if they are the cohesive, ambitious Lions
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing