Lions’ road turns mountain pass

    2016-07-17 12:36

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – A home quarter-final against Super Rugby’s most prolific, seven-time winners the Crusaders.

    Then if things were to stay according to knockout seedings, a bruising home semi against close domestic rivals the Stormers … followed by the rich irony of a murderous trek across the Indian Ocean to tackle the Hurricanes in a Wellington showpiece on August 6.

    That is the possible route from here for the Lions, agonisingly nudged out of top-placed finish on the ordinary-season overall standings by failing to register the lone log point required from their second-string combination against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Saturday.

    My stated view ahead of the clash was that while not exposing certain core individuals to the tiring trip to South America was understandable by coach Johan Ackermann, I feared that being so radical as to keep the “first team” back in Johannesburg lock, stock and barrel, exposed them much more dangerously to getting nothing at all from the date.

    In the end Ackermann’s gamble came close to succeeding – not that that is any consolation now for supporters of the franchise well aware that a home final may well have been removed from the equation should they even get that far; it is advantage Hurricanes for ending on 53 points to their 52.

    Just one further try in their heart-breaking 34-22 reverse in Argentina would have been enough – the Lions’ “reserves” led for quite a generous portion of the fixture – for that single log point and retention of overall supremacy in the competition.

    It is only fair to withhold judgement on Ackermann’s selection decisions until after (and if) the Lions have gone a good way down the knockout line, but I already find it irresistible to suspect that they have made the journey a whole lot harder for a maiden title crack in modern Super Rugby considering the way things have turned out fixture-wise.   

    But now the Lions’ cannot spend much time sobbing over spilled milk, something not in their plucky nature anyway: that last-eight date with the Crusaders at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday (16:30) beckons.

    There is only increased pressure, naturally, on their supposedly well-rested, cotton-woolled seniors to deliver the goods against the wily New Zealanders.

    Make no mistake, the vast majority of Lions fans would have preferred to have tackled the Sharks in the Big Smoke, considering that earlier this month they had thrashed them 37-10.

    Instead the second-placed finish for the Lions means they oppose, in stark contrast, an outfit who outsmarted them 43-37 in a highly entertaining encounter on April Fools Day, just days after also beating the Sharks 19-14 on SA soil.

    It was a further reminder that NZ sides decreasingly “fear” playing on often firmer, faster surfaces in our country, and certainly aren’t cowed by the idea of operating at high altitude, either.

    In that ordinary-season meeting, bustling Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty bagged a hat-trick of tries as the Lions made the mistake of letting things get too frantic and loose – though they showed plenty of their own attacking relish, too – and demonstrating some cracks in their defensive shape.

    They will know that a wiser, more “mixed” approach to their formula this time will be necessary if they are to avenge that result.

    Meanwhile the Stormers face the Chiefs in a second, just as appealing SA-hosted quarter-final against Kiwi opposition (Newlands, Saturday 19:00) which should also provide a pointer or two to bilateral Test prospects between the two countries in the looming Castle Rugby Championship.

    It will be the first time this season that the Capetonians have faced any NZ foes, something well less than ideal for them, but the Stormers are at least on a pretty good roll – their offensive game is looking that bit silkier and less predictable than before – with four victories in a row.

    They will need to be at their very best in all respects to down the Mooloo Men, who will be heartened by memories of their last visit to Newlands in 2015, when they prevailed comfortably in the end 28-19 and by three tries to one after a roaring home-town start.

    A third NZ v SA quarter-final sees the wildcard Sharks take a long-haul flight to face the Hurricanes at the “Cake Tin” (Saturday, 09:35 SA time).

    Still on likely tenterhooks about the fitness of senior flyhalf and captain Pat Lambie after his unfortunate “lights out” moment in the first Test against Ireland at Newlands several weeks ago, it is a tough ask for the Durban-based side.

    But they can take heart from one of their sprightliest displays of the season against these very foes, at Kings Park on May 7, when two tries from JP Pietersen, soon to end his long Sharks career, helped power them to a 32-15 win.

    The remaining quarter-final, on Friday (10:00 SA time) sees the Brumbies, fortunate under the dubious tourney dispensation to be seeded fourth, host the defending champion Highlanders in Canberra.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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