Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Various opportunistic vultures would have been circling expectantly ahead of the Lions’ Super Rugby derby clash with the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday.
Instead they were required to reluctantly scatter – at least for the looming few weeks of competition inactivity – as the Highveld visitors eked out that industrial, but enormously important, 26-23 victory.
One of those birds of prey was certainly SA conference surprise packages the Jaguares, who had advanced to within a menacing two points of Swys de Bruin’s charges a day earlier by convincingly claiming the Sharks as their latest scalp in Buenos Aires, and would have been egging on the Capetonians.
The Lions have now played one game more than the in-form South Americans, but earned treasured breathing space by stretching the points gap back to six over the second-placed conference challengers.
So really now, the successive tournament runners-up of 2016 and 2017 have fate in their own hands – beat compatriots the Sharks (away) and Bulls (home) in their remaining two ordinary-season fixtures after the June break and they will be roughly 95 percent assured of topping the group at the finish.
Neither game can be taken for granted, although purely based on their expanding, highly impressive statistical dominance of strictly South African rivals, they should not trip up on either occasion.
Saturday’s pipping of the Stormers – now condemned to also-rans for the year, barring an absolute miracle – marked the 21st successive occasion that the Lions have not lost a match to a compatriot outfit.
It includes 20 victories and one draw (a 19-19 outcome against the same Stormers in Cape Town on June 6 2015).
Including one knockout-phase triumph – over the Sharks last season – the sequence includes four derby wins so far this season, eight in 2017, seven in 2016 and a further two in 2015.
Their last reverse to an SA foe came in a nail-biting 35-33 Bulls triumph at Loftus back on May 2, 2015.
Had the Lions crashed on Saturday, the Jaguares would have developed a real sense of expectation that they could yet top the conference pile; that seems instead to have been subdued to a good extent.
Although the vastly improved -- and crucially so much more disciplined nowadays -- Argentineans will expect to beat the ailing Stormers in Buenos Aires next up for them, they finish their programme with a pair of toughies on our soil against the Bulls and Sharks respectively.
Although it is said with due caution, those two fixtures could prove their final undoing as aspirant conference winners.
There is still a fair chance, after all, that the Sharks will be slugging it out desperately for a (lowly) knockout place, come that final Saturday on July 14, so should not lack motivation against the Jaguares at Kings Park.
By nosing out the Stormers, too, the Lions have enhanced their chances of ending second overall, to ensure a possible home semi-final ticket, rather than worst-placed winner among the three conferences.
Right now, Aussie leaders the Waratahs (just beaten 39-27 by the Chiefs) have 31 points, nine fewer than the Lions albeit with two matches in hand, while the Rebels stand on 30, also with two games in hand over the Johannesburg team.
The Lions’ position currently seems the better of the three to be in.
Still left for the ‘Tahs are games against the Reds (away), Rebels (away), Sunwolves (home) and Brumbies (home).
The Rebels still have the Blues (away), Waratahs (home), Reds (away) and Highlanders (away).
Although again well off their best rugby, the Lions’ collective spirit would have been done no harm at all by winning the bruising Newlands clash.
They are dangerously low at present on specialist resources at hooker, as experienced second choice Robbie Coetzee joined the crocked list in Cape Town, but bear in mind that Springbok juggernaut Malcolm Marx ought to be back in the saddle for the final straight in July …
*Next weekend’s curtailed programme (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Hurricanes, 09:35. Saturday: Blues v Rebels, 07:15; Chiefs v Crusaders, 09:35; Reds v Waratahs, 11:45. Sunday: Brumbies v Sunwolves, 08:05.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing