Lions ignoring the chasing pack
Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Cape Town - Lions coach Swys de Bruin is in agreement with his Bulls counterpart John Mitchell and the Stormers assistant Paul Feeney that the battle for honours in the South African conference is far from over, but he has instructed his team to focus on their own game and not concern themselves with the chasing pack.
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A few weeks ago the Lions looked comfortable winners of the conference, which would have secured them a favourable draw for the knock-out phase to be played in July. Stormers coach Robbie Fleck, on the day that the Lions beat the Waratahs 29-0 and his own team lost to the Sharks, was even prepared at that point to concede that “the Lions are running away with it”.
Push forward a few weeks though and the landscape has changed dramatically, with the Lions needing to win their final tour game against the Highlanders on Saturday if they want to stay more than a win ahead on the log of whichever other South African teams win this weekend (the form team, the Jaguares, have a bye).
“We don’t look at other teams because if you do that you risk taking your eye off the ball,” said De Bruin in the build-up to the final tour game.
“It is true that the other teams are hauling us in, but they also have to play against each other too, and all of them still have to travel to Argentina (which won’t be easy). If we can get some log points out of the Highlanders game, and then the Brumbies at home next week, then we will be in a strong position again. We just have to take it game by game and make sure we play well.”
After losing to the Stormers last week, Bulls coach Mitchell described the conference as “wide open”. And Feeney says the Stormers are still eyeing top spot.
“We still don’t think the conference is over. If the Lions get knocked over, and there's a chance of that as the Highlanders are unbeaten at home, then first place is up for grabs for the other teams if they keep winning,” said Feeney.
“It is getting really interesting. We have to go to Argentina still, as do the Bulls and the Sharks, but the Lions still have to come to Cape Town and go to Durban. We have a Newlands game against the Sharks to look forward to as well. If you keep winning, and knock the other contenders back in the process, you start placing your destiny in your own hands.”
The Lions though will want to end the debate and speculation, and while a win over the Highlanders won’t close out the conference race, it will mean the Lions will return home from tour in a strong position. De Bruin reminded the media this week that while his team has lost some momentum in the last two games, a win in Dunedin will still make it a good tour by South African standards.
“If we return from tour with two wins in four starts then we will feel we had a successful tour,” said De Bruin.
“It is only really the first half of the game against the Reds where we have been poor. We were very good against the Waratahs, and while we lost to the Hurricanes in Wellington, they are the most difficult team in the competition to play against away. You can play well against them and still lose. I don’t think we were bad against them.”
De Bruin knows that the Highlanders game will be a tough challenge.
“They have had to travel back from South Africa this week but we showed when we won so well in our first tour game against the Waratahs that travel doesn’t necessarily have to be a big factor,” said the Lions coach.
“The Highlanders were poor against the Sharks but it is funny how often a team touring South Africa underperforms in the second week. The Highlanders are a team that is not so good away but they are very different in Dunedin, which makes the challenge bigger for us, but we are ready for it.
De Bruin pointed at the fact that the Highlanders had starting All Blacks at scrumhalf (Aaron Smith) and fullback (Ben Smith) as well as a capped All Black at flyhalf (Lima Sopoaga) as the biggest threat to his team’s quest for victory.
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