Lions' thrashing only blemish in bright SA round
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Strong statements by both coastal teams, the Stormers and Sharks, some reasonable signs for the Bulls even in defeat … but just the Lions dragging down the sense of optimism.
Those were major features of the first round of Super Rugby 2020 for South Africa’s quartet of sides.
While you must be wary of reading too much into opening-weekend results, it was also almost impossible not to suspect a few useful pointers.
Quite obviously, the winning starts for the Stormers - especially clinical in dismantling a cynical, blundering Hurricanes outfit 27-0 at Newlands - and Sharks, who won the Durban derby against the Bulls 23-15, will only amplify a fairly well-subscribed pre-season belief that they might be the country’s best hopes of galloping into the knockout phase this year.
But it isn’t all gloom for the Bulls, still the only SA team to have won the modern Super Rugby title, as the remodelled troops from Pretoria were right in the game at 16-15 just before the final whistle at Kings Park and seemingly on course for a deserved losing bonus point.
Exciting reserve scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba’s late try, however, took that away from them at the death.
Pote Human’s charges have a second consecutive away derby toughie against the Stormers this Saturday, but whatever happens there, their shift to Loftus for a solid sequence of matches soon afterwards (Blues, Jaguares, Highlanders in that order) could signal a change of fortunes before too much threat of a major “play catch-up” requirement.
Still, many fans of both the Sharks and Stormers - and plenty of SA neutrals - will already be wondering just how big, and significant, their first encounter might be: it will occur at Kings Park on March 14, after both teams have had several weeks to fine-tune their respective formulas for the season.
The Lions had their worst start to ordinary season in many years (they have won their opening fixture in each of the last four campaigns) when the Jaguares grilled them 38-8 and by five tries to one in Buenos Aires.
It was their heaviest round-one reverse since the 2015 season, when the ‘Canes beat them 22-8 at Ellis Park - a year before they went on a three-year run of reaching the competition’s final every time.
What the Argentineans’ romp will have done, potentially to the detriment of all the South African sides, is fuel their belief that they have it within them to repeat their 2019 SA conference-winning success.
The Jaguares have shed two major pack meanies since last year - robust Pumas flanker Pablo Matera and sometimes red mist-prone lock Tomas Lavanini, also a Test veteran - but it didn’t seem a significant impediment to their clear-cut mastery of a raw, rebuilding Lions combo.
They now have another two home tussles (Hurricanes, Reds) before making their first SA tour, to play all of the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks in clashes that could have a key bearing on the conference pecking order further down the line.
Yes, the Lions now return with tails between legs, but it isn’t yet all glass-half-empty for Elton Jantjies and company: they have a rosy opportunity to get up and running in the win column this weekend when they entertain, in mid-summer Highveld conditions, a Reds team from the already slightly anaemic-looking Australian conference …
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Sharks, 08:05; Brumbies v Rebels, 10:15. Saturday: Chiefs v Crusaders, 08:05; Waratahs v Blues, 10:15; Lions v Reds, 15:05; Stormers v Bulls, 17:15; Jaguares v Hurricanes, 23:40. Bye: Sunwolves.
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