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    Now Lions must keep foot on gas!

    2018-04-21 21:22

    Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Lions’ was the first result of the latest South African weekend of activity in Super Rugby … and it stayed the best one right to the last.

    It is virtually beyond dispute: their unexpectedly clear-cut 29-0 thumping of the previously in-form Waratahs on Friday eclipsed the Bulls’ 28-10 disposal of the Rebels at Loftus a day later, and also the Sharks’ much tighter 24-17 derby triumph in Durban over the similarly fragile Stormers.

    Although the Bulls, who played some wonderful rugby in patches, emulated the Lions by winning with a bonus point against their Australian foes, the side from Johannesburg maintained a significant gap at the top of the SA conference.

    The Lions currently sport 30 points from nine matches, with the second-placed Bulls now on 19 from eight.

    It is still good breathing space to have, although things get more interesting if the Lions crash to the Reds in Brisbane next Saturday and John Mitchell’s charges, again playing before the Pretoria faithful, see off the Highlanders.

    That’s just one reason why the Lions must stay firmly focused on ensuring no slip-up against a Reds outfit who shape up as their softest tour opposition on paper.

    The Queenslanders are on a losing streak of four matches since their last success, which was a minor upset (18-7) of the Jaguares in Buenos Aires back on March 17.

    Since then, they have lost to the Stormers at Newlands (25-19), Brumbies in Canberra (45-21), Waratahs in Sydney (37-16) and in the latest round were well beaten 36-12 by the Chiefs in Brisbane.

    By contrast, the Lions are picking up steam again, bearing in mind that Friday’s wonderful result – it is not every day that a South African team keeps an Australasian team blank on their own turf – came on top of a 52-31 roasting of the Stormers in their last outing.

    The Sydney success was hugely important, not only for keeping a still-formidable chasing pack (mostly NZ sides) narrowly at bay as Swys de Bruin’s side clicked into top spot overall, but for effectively being a “10-point-swing” affair over the ‘Tahs.

    The Waratahs do remain the premier team in the Aussie conference (they have 24 points from eight games), but there is now that bit less risk that they will end ordinary season with more points than the Lions – assuming they remain the best SA side – and possibly steal one of the home semi-final-rights tickets from them.

    Certainly the Lions are likely to be branded bookies’ favourites to beat the Reds, given respective, differing form, and the fact that in last season’s equivalent meeting – at Emirates Airline Park – the hosts romped to a 44-14 win (four tries to Courtnall Skosan, still absent this season through injury although not too hugely missed at left wing thus far).

    Meanwhile the Bulls, who continue to ride a generally upward curve under Mitchell’s diligent tutelage, have an arguably tougher assignment, despite the advantage of Highveld conditions, when the Highlanders come to Pretoria.

    Although they lie a deceptive sixth overall, the men from Dunedin have played fewer games than most teams (seven) but are only six points off the Lions, for example, with two in hand.

    Under the circumstances, it is difficult to know what outcome the Lions might prefer at Loftus: should they be more concerned with their conference, or the overall situation? Probably the latter, at this point.

    The Bulls showed off some beautiful, creative touches from set moves and in broken play against the Rebels, but also exited from their own quarter rather too dangerously and over-elaborately, had some issues at the breakdown, and went off the boil mentally at times.

    Saturday’s closing game on SA soil, the all-coastal clash at Kings Park, really only underlined how lacking in real confidence or pizzazz both the Sharks and Stormers are.

    An overwhelmingly turgid first half ensued, as they nervously felt each other out, and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett, the SuperSport analyst, lamented some of the “kicking tennis” as possession was too often hoofed aimlessly back from team’s grasp to the other.

    Fortunately the second period livened up a great deal, and some easy-on-the-eye tries were registered; manna from heaven for another disappointingly sparse crowd.

    The Sharks were fairly good value overall for the victory – their opponents remain without an away triumph in six attempts – and did manage on this occasion to bring some of their outside backs into the game more than usual: players like Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and S’bu Nkosi revelled as a result.

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Hurricanes v Sunwolves, 09:35; Stormers v Rebels, 15:05. Saturday: Reds v Lions, 07:05; Blues v Jaguares, 09:35; Brumbies v Crusaders, 11:45; Bulls v Highlanders, 17:15. Byes: Sharks, Waratahs, Chiefs.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 26 May 2018
    • Chiefs v Waratahs, FMG Stadium Waikato 09:35
    • Reds v Highlanders, Suncorp Stadium 11:45
    • Bulls v Brumbies, Loftus Versfeld 15:05
    • Stormers v Lions, Cape Town 17:15
    Friday, 01 June 2018
    • Highlanders v Hurricanes, Forsyth Barr Stadium 09:35
    Saturday, 02 June 2018
    • Blues v Rebels, Eden Park 07:15
    • Chiefs v Crusaders, FMG Stadium Waikato 09:35
    • Reds v Waratahs, Suncorp Stadium 11:45

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    07 April 2018
    06 April 2018
    01 April 2018
    31 March 2018
    30 March 2018
    24 March 2018
    23 March 2018
    18 March 2018
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    09 March 2018
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