Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The fact that it has required some help from the controversial artificiality of the Super Rugby system is hardly going to bother the Lions now.
All that really matters is that the planets have aligned quite smartly – courtesy of widespread favourable results over the closing round of ordinary season – for the Johannesburg side to have almost as good a chance as ever to finally land the modern Super Rugby title.
Just by getting to the final (now a tantalising two wins away) for the third time in a row, they would be making South African history, into the bargain.
These Lions have been infinitely less clinical and consistent than their eventual tournament runners-up outfits of both 2016 and 2017, something glaringly reflected in comparative win percentages for ordinary season.
By winning an unremarkable nine of their 16 pre-knockout games, the figure for 2018 is only 56.25 percent, well down on last year (a stellar 93.33 percent) and the one before (73.33).
Yet by hook or crook – and neutral cynics may mutter more of the latter, given the dubious finals series seedings policy – Swys de Bruin’s charges have winkled their way into second overall after the three-conference league season.
That also means, of course, the not completely outlandish possibility that looked so much more doubtful a few days ago: a home showpiece again in the event that the runaway top-ranked Crusaders somehow get upset (most likely by a fellow-New Zealand side, if it happened) en route to the August 4 final.
The defending champions, who won their eighth title at Emirates Airline Park last year, look close to unstoppable at present, and the best hope for all other sides left in the competition is that the ‘Saders have peaked too soon – albeit an unlikely event considering the rich experience in their camp of what it takes to go all the way.
As for the Lions, their best form of psychological medicine from here is no doubt to believe that they, by contrast, are on the brink of firing properly at exactly the right time.
Their home quarter-final date with the Jaguares on Saturday is filled with certain perils, as the Jaguares have thoroughly warmed to the competition this season and also elected to cocoon the core of their premier personnel from the damp, strangely low-key closing conference match against the victorious Sharks, now setting up camp in formidable Christchurch.
But the Lions almost indisputably remain favourites. As wretched as their Buenos Aires record is (played three, lost three), they have also beaten the Jaguares all three times on the Highveld, including twice by quite gaping margins.
Warren Whiteley and company will also be secretly pleased to have ducked New Zealand opposition at the last-eight stage, given their nought from four record against sides from those shores, either home or away, this campaign.
The Lions, soon at high risk of losing the nucleus of the playing staff who have served them in sterling fashion for most of the past three seasons at very least, have a long way to go before they can match the South African success in the competition of the Bulls.
The Loftus-based team have won the modern Super Rugby silverware three times (2007, 2009 and 2010).
But where the Lions could now eclipse them -- given a productive next fortnight, of course – is in becoming the first SA outfit to appear in three finals on the trot. (In the midst of that golden period, the Bulls had a bad 2008, ending an inexplicable 10th out of 14 teams.)
The landmark for most finals appearances in succession is held by the Crusaders, unsurprisingly: they featured in as many as five in a row between 2002 and 2006 and won three of them.
They are also among three sides to have got to the showpiece three times on the trot: their “hat-trick” sequence was between 1998 and 2000, whilst the Blues (1996-98) and Brumbies (2000-02) also hold that honour.
The Lions have blown two previous, succulent opportunities to claim the overall crown from considerably better broad campaigns by themselves.
This time, if they can pull it off, it would be via the back door.
But it is one that has been left quite kindly ajar, nevertheless …
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