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    Lions, Bulls in Highveld heaven!

    2016-04-17 08:29

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It would be foolhardy, with the halfway point of Super Rugby ordinary season not quite ticked off, for anyone to submit that “the coast is toast” in South Africa.

    But let’s just say that week eight of 17 will go down as one where two inland powers, the Lions and Bulls, made very substantial conference gains at the expense of the Stormers and Sharks.

    Of the quartet, who are also the remaining SA sides with realistic ongoing quarter-final aspirations – both the Cheetahs and Kings almost certainly lag too far behind already – only the Sharks played on foreign soil on Saturday, and their 23-18 loss to the Blues in their New Zealand tour opener seemed particularly damaging.

    That is because it looked their “easiest” fixture on the three-match trip and, with the Highlanders and Chiefs still ahead, a major danger exists now that they may come home winless – as it is, Gary Gold’s charges have now not tasted triumph in four successive matches after a roaring start to 2016.

    Adding to their present woes in Africa Conference 2, group-mates the Lions later staved off the Stormers 29-22 in a high-quality Johannesburg clash, to open up a handy five-point lead on the Durban-based side after seven games each.

    With the Lions next playing the limited Kings in Port Elizabeth, rather than having to face up to a taxing assignment against the defending champions in Dunedin as the Sharks do, that gap is quite likely to only widen in week nine.

    By contrast, things are tantalisingly poised in Africa Conference 1, where three-times title winners the Bulls, fresh from trouncing the Reds 41-22 at Loftus, had double cause to celebrate a couple of hours later, as the result just down the highway at Emirates Airline Park also suited their agenda enormously.

    The Stormers did bag a losing bonus point – and just about deserved that for their contribution to a welcome, constructive and enthralling derby – but by suffering their second defeat of the year saw the Bulls (23) close to within one point of the Capetonians’ supremacy on the table.

    Without generating a huge amount of fanfare, Adriaan Strauss and company presently boast unbeaten status in six matches on the trot after their inexperienced (but seemingly fast-learning) side were humbled 33-9 at Newlands on the opening weekend.

    They now enjoy the ideal scenario of a bye, to prepare them for a three-game tour of Australia, and they will leave our shores in rightfully decent spirits: there were shades of the Bulls of old in the way they piled into collisions, showed strong leg-drive and occasionally opened up play with some pizzazz.

    Suddenly the Stormers, widely identified as being beneficiaries of a kind draw this year, aren’t sitting nearly as pretty as they were in the conference, although there is also no need for panic stations just because they lost an epic battle in the Big Smoke where they were pressing courageously for a draw well after the siren. 

    As for the Lions, this triumph over the consistently tough-nut Stormers, coming straight on the heels of an away victory over the Sharks, only confirmed the seriousness of their own aspirations in 2016.

    With flyhalf Elton Jantjies brilliantly to the fore – what a mature and routinely classy, calculated customer he has become – they were indisputable value for securing the spoils after what former Springbok coach and SuperSport analyst Nick Mallett enthusiastically branded “royal entertainment … such a good advertisement for South African rugby”.

    While the Sharks not being able to get the better of the lowest-ranked of the otherwise imperious NZ teams was reason for some crumpled brows back home, the Cheetahs nearly posting a century of points against the Sunwolves a day earlier added to a broadly upbeat weekend for the SA teams.

    Perhaps Naas Botha made a relevant point when he suggested after all the dust had settled on the round: “The players finally now know who the Bok coach is … so decided ‘let’s start playing’.”

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

    Friday: Highlanders v Sharks, 09:35; Rebels v Cheetahs, 11:45. Saturday: Sunwolves v Jaguares, 07:15; Hurricanes v Chiefs, 09:35; Force v Waratahs, 11:45; Stormers v Reds, 15:00; Kings v Lions, 17:10. Sunday: Brumbies v Crusaders, 08:05. Byes: Blues, Bulls.

    *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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