Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The absolute minimum target? Three victories. The ideal? Win all four.
That, I suggest, is the very steep task facing the SA conference-leading Lions on their Australasian tour, which opens on Friday against the Waratahs in Sydney (11:45 SA time), if they are to retain even the slightest chance of earning potential rights to a second successive home final in Super Rugby.
Ordinarily, a 50 percent win record by South African teams on their main tour in the competition is considered a very decent outcome indeed.
But the Lions, by my estimation, require at very least a 75 percent scorecard (three out of four) to have realistic ongoing hopes of hosting the August 4 showpiece.
For that goal to stay attainable, both games on the Aussie leg - they face the mediocre Reds in Brisbane next - will probably need to be bagged, as a double strike in New Zealand (Hurricanes, Highlanders) is highly unlikely.
If the Lions “only” win two games in the next four weeks, it will significantly reduce their likelihood of topping the overall table after ordinary season, something they admirably managed last year.
A two-from-four tour record, for example, would mean that they have leaked as many as five defeats in total after 12 matches - and four yet to play before the knockout phase, including taxing derbies against the Stormers (away), Sharks (away) and Bulls (home).
It is sobering to note that in last season’s march to the top of the ordinary-season standings at conclusion, the Johannesburg-based outfit only surrendered one game - yes, that old Buenos Aires bogey affair against the Jaguares.
The same applied to the Crusaders, although the eventual champions fell two log points short of the Lions.
So already Swys de Bruin’s charges are relying on this season’s ordinary season being more widely competitive (or read: several losses for each title-aspirant) for any stab at a Highveld final again.
That remains possible.
The Crusaders, for example, have already lost two matches, whilst Aussie leaders the Waratahs, the Lions’ foes on Friday, have lost one and drawn one of their seven outings.
Overall leaders the Hurricanes have only suffered one setback (very early on, against the Bulls at Loftus) but every other team in the competition barring the ‘Tahs has experienced at least two defeats.
Not helping the Hurricanes’ upcoming cause is that, like the Lions, they have an awful lot more away fixtures to contend with in their run-in than home ones: six of their nine are on the road.
That said, the ‘Canes are among four New Zealand sides who have an equal or better chance than the Lions, based on the current situation, of claiming that vital top spot overall, keeping in mind that only the Crusaders in 2017 managed to cross the Indian Ocean to win the title.
It is exactly why every defeat the Lions may suffer on tour should induce a resounding “ouch” from supporters of the Ellis Park-based side.
The Crusaders may lie three points shy of the Hurricanes in second on the NZ conference table, but they could almost be described as better-placed than their compatriots after as many matches: they have two extra home ones, and at this point are my own favourites to grab (and thus retain) this year’s overall silverware.
As mentioned earlier in the week, the Waratahs - only one point behind the Lions with a game in hand – will be quite menacingly placed for eclipsing Friday’s SA guests to a home semi-final if they win the key clash and simultaneously vault the Lions on the overall log.
Perhaps the New South Wales team’s biggest impediment to a lofty, home semi-securing finish, however, is a fast-looming sequence of four matches against NZ opposition: Blues (home), Crusaders (away), Highlanders (home) and Chiefs (away).
But the Lions?
Hardly helped by the latest curveball around Warren Whiteley’s medical matters, which has delayed his return indefinitely, I’d say they have it all to do for another mid-winter showpiece in the Big Smoke …
Here are the remaining matches for the current top four sides overall:
Hurricanes (played seven, 27 points): Sunwolves (a), Lions (h), Blues (a), Reds (h), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (a), Brumbies (a), Blues (h), Chiefs (a)
Lions (played eight, 25 points): Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Hurricanes (a), Highlanders (a), Brumbies (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (a), Bulls (h)
Waratahs (played seven, 24 points): Lions (h), Blues (h), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (h), Chiefs (a), Reds (a), Rebels (a), Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (h)
Crusaders (played seven, 24 points): Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (a), Rebels (a), Waratahs (h), Blues (a), Hurricanes (h), Chiefs (a), Highlanders (h), Blues (h)
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