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    Lions will never have a better chance

    2017-07-16 13:00

    Lloyd Burnard - Sport24

    Cape Town - Johan Ackermann's Lions have been the perfect example of what can happen when a talented group of players works together for an extended period under one philosophy and one high-calibre leader.

    While other South African sides in Super Rugby are still searching for their identity, the Lions were forced to start again a long time ago and they are reaping the rewards now. 

    For the past five seasons, this group of players has been on the same page. There was a clear structure, a clear game plan and the skills of the players were nurtured under that umbrella.

    The end result is a side that has almost perfected what they are trying to do. 

    They have gone from lowest of lows in losing their Super Rugby status to the Kings in 2013, to being the benchmark in 2017. 

    On Saturday against the Sharks in Durban, Ackermann's men were nowhere near their best but still managed a 27-10 win. 

    In a match that had farcical play-off ramifications, the Sharks threw everything at their opposition and were clearly up for it. That they finished 17 points short, at home, on a day where the Lions didn't fire speaks volumes of how far the Lions have moved away from their South African rivals. 

    It was a result that gives them top spot on the overall log heading into the quarter-finals, which means that they will play at Ellis Park for as long as they remain in the competition. 

    The Lions have lost just one of their 15 group matches this season, and that came when they fielded a largely watered down side against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. 

    Now, it is time to go one step further than being runners-up in 2016 and get the job done. 

    Ackermann is on his way to Gloucester at the end of the season, spelling the end of a truly memorable era in Johannesburg. 

    It is a huge blow to the Lions faithful but, in the end, he has probably taken them as far as he can. 

    When he does depart, Ackermann will do so knowing that he has left the Lions in the healthiest state possible. 

    Before then, though, the Lions must win Super Rugby this year. 

    It would be the perfect prize for what has been one of the most impressive South African Super rugby coaching stints for a long time. 

    It won't be easy - the current nonsensical tournament format means that the Lions have not played New Zealand opposition in 2017 - but their home ground advantage gives them a better chance than ever. 

    Not securing a home final was considered the reason the Lions lost out on the title last year, but they have ensured that they will have no such worries this time around. 

    When you look at a Lions starting XV today, you see quality from top to bottom. 

    These are players who, individually, may still be finding their feet in their young careers or on the international stage. 

    But, as a unit, this is a side that is as good as they come. 

    Hopefully, that quality can shine through for three more matches and the Lions can give South Africa its first Super Rugby title since the Bulls in 2010. 

    There are three South African sides in the play-offs, but regardless of who you support, there is only one side that can realistically go the distance. 

    Follow @LloydBurnard on Twitter...

    Super Rugby quarter-finals:

    Friday, July 21

    Brumbies v Hurricanes, Canberra - 11:35 (SA time)

    Saturday, July 22

    Crusaders v Highlanders, Christchurch - 09:35 (SA time)

    Lions v Sharks, Johannesburg - 14:30

    Stormers v Chiefs, Cape Town - 17:00

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 17 February 2018
    • Stormers v Jaguares, Cape Town 15:05
    • Lions v Sharks, Emirates Airlines Park 17:15
    Friday, 23 February 2018
    • Highlanders v Blues, 08:35
    • Rebels v Reds, AAMI Park 10:45
    Saturday, 24 February 2018
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 06:15
    • Crusaders v Chiefs, 08:35
    • Waratahs v Stormers, Allianz Stadium 10:45
    • Lions v Jaguares, Emirates Airlines Park 15:05
    • Bulls v Hurricanes, Loftus Versfeld 17:15

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