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    Lions: Another final seems forlorn hope

    2019-05-11 19:36

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Lions may have earned a nail-biting home victory over the Waratahs on Saturday, but the match only really appeared to serve up further evidence that a fourth consecutive appearance in the Super Rugby final will be beyond them this year.

    Although they have also taken enormous pride for several years in proving doubters wrong, Warren Whiteley’s 2019 outfit continue to look some way short of the altogether more zesty, polished Lions side of the 2016 and 2017 years, in particular.

    Scratches to their paintwork were already appearing last year, when they lost as many as seven matches in ordinary season, and this 29-28 close shave against the ‘Tahs - SuperSport pundit and former Springbok hooker Hanyani Shimange was justified in branding it a “typical mid-table contest” - did little to suggest that any aspirations beyond merely making the playoffs cut are attainable.

    As it is, they are curtailed to fourth in the SA conference and a very borderline eighth overall after this result, where they never looked like threatening to add a bonus point and would have been relieved just to get over the line in a loose, error-laden four-tries-all tussle.

    Indeed, when you consider that one of the Lions’ tries came from what studio guru Nick Mallett highlighted was a “dramatic forward pass” early in the move - between Stephan Lewies and Malcolm Marx - the visiting Aussies had reason to feel aggrieved with referee Egon Seconds and his various back-up personnel.

    On the mitigatory side, the Johannesburg-based team were coming off a post-tour bye, and player of the match Marx (a game-topping 18 carries, plus 75 metres made and hallmark nuisance value on the deck) admitted afterwards that they showed rustiness virtually throughout.

    Whiteley was no less a realist in his own appraisal of the showing: “Our set-piece was inconsistent, we lost control of the ball too much … we need to be better. (But) I am proud of the team for grinding it out; the Waratahs wouldn’t let us go.”

    That quest for improvement will need to kick in strongly when the Highlanders - a little ominously in the current climate - become the next outfit from New Zealand to visit South Africa, with a tour starter at Ellis Park next Saturday afternoon.

    They are unbeaten in four matches, and will take to the high-altitude clash emboldened by how consummately compatriots the Crusaders dealt with that supposed lung-challenging “drawback” up the highway at Loftus on Friday night.

    At least by pipping the Waratahs, the Lions indisputably remained part of the extraordinary battle for conference supremacy this year: it only seems to get tighter even as the group is marked by collective, abject frailty when it comes to results consistency.

    That is starkly apparent when you notice that the now conference-leading Sharks (courtesy of their losing bonus point against the Chiefs on Saturday, perhaps the least they deserved) somehow hold bragging rights despite a negative win-loss ratio after a dozen matches.

    They have five victories, a draw and six reverses.

    Now returning from a decent enough Australasian tour with a win, loss and stalemate, the Sharks have a handy bye before a four-game final push - although one of those assignments will be another long-haul trek to Buenos Aires.

    They are likely to see their lead short-lived, as a result: any one or more of the Bulls, Jaguares or Lions will overtake them with a win next weekend and the Stormers, currently bottom, would draw level on points in the unlikely event that they knock over the mighty ‘Saders at Newlands with a bonus point into the bargain.

    “We really bonded on this tour; it was awesome,” Sharks captain Louis Schreuder said after the gutsy enough 29-23 defeat in Hamilton.

    The validity of those words will be put to the test when his men resume their campaign against the Lions at Kings Park in a fortnight, considering that highly damaging stint at home, ahead of the trek, when they looked so lacklustre in surprise successive defeats to the Jaguares and Reds.

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday, May 17

    Hurricanes v Jaguares - 09:35

    Rebels v Bulls - 11:45

    Saturday, May 18

    Blues v Chiefs - 09:35

    Reds v Waratahs - 11:45

    Lions v Highlanders - 15:05

    Stormers v Crusaders - 17:15

    Byes: Sharks, Brumbies, Sunwolves

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 25 May 2019
    • Sunwolves v Rebels, Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium 07:15
    • Crusaders v Blues, AMI Stadium 09:35
    • Waratahs v Jaguares, Allianz Stadium 11:45
    • Stormers v Highlanders, Cape Town 15:05
    • Sharks v Lions, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 17:15
    Friday, 31 May 2019
    • Blues v Bulls, Eden Park 09:35
    • Rebels v Waratahs, AAMI Park 11:45
    Saturday, 01 June 2019
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium 07:15
    • Chiefs v Crusaders, ANZ National Stadium 09:35
    • Reds v Jaguares, Suncorp Stadium 11:45
    • Sharks v Hurricanes, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 15:05
    • Lions v Stormers, Emirates Airline Park 17:15

    Results

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    18 May 2019
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    11 May 2019
    10 May 2019
    04 May 2019
    03 May 2019
    27 April 2019
    26 April 2019
    20 April 2019
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    13 April 2019
    12 April 2019
    06 April 2019
    05 April 2019
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    16 February 2019
    15 February 2019

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