Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Mitigating circumstances? Yes, some … but an embarrassing day at the office for three highly-touted Springbok props nevertheless marked the latest round of Super Rugby.
On a weekend where the geographically distant Jaguares took themselves to within a whisker of securing the SA conference for the first time, the Stormers’ Steven Kitshoff, Wilco Louw and Frans Malherbe would not have looked back with any affection on their duties against the fired-up, comfortably victorious Lions at Emirates Airline Park.
Kitshoff is right up there with the currently injured Sharks veteran Tendai Mtawarira as premier-tier Bok loosehead, while tightheads Louw and Malherbe have similarly been among the most favoured engine-room staff for the national team in their specialist berth over the last couple of years.
So while the increasingly crippling spate of injuries in the Capetonians’ ranks has been a contributor, the battering their usually respected scrum took from the home outfit – it went some way to explaining the 41-22 outcome – was a major post-game talking point.
The Lions only have one current Bok in their own front row, juggernaut hooker Malcolm Marx, but with Dylan Smith and Carlu Sadie no less impressive beside him, their set-piece quickly earned ascendancy and then only tightened the grip mercilessly.
While the Stormers had to give a late, maiden start to Chad Solomon -- a mobile hooker but not the beefiest scrummaging factor in the role you will ever see – and mid-match injuries to both starting locks Eben Etzebeth and Cobus Wiese simply deepened their plight, it was still a strange, unsettling spectacle to witness the likes of Kitshoff, Louw and Malherbe having to pick themselves up in undignified fashion from the deck after being buckled backwards at several scrums.
Aided also by the sparkling nuisance value both on the deck and in open play by dynamic loose forward Kwagga Smith, the Lions produced vintage moments of attacking flair at times to run in six tries in the near-rout.
The handsome result catapulted them back to second in the conference and fifth overall, even though the Jaguares, now having completed a rosy Australasian tour with three precious wins from four fixtures, boast a nearly unassailable six-point lead in the group.
With just successive Buenos Aires clashes ahead against the Sharks (next weekend) and then the usually easy-meat Sunwolves to follow for the Argentineans, one further triumph from those clashes should do the conference-clinching trick.
It would give them an important home quarter-final, and leave the rest of the SA contingent simply fighting desperately to make the finals series cut, with unfavourable (away game-dominated) seedings.
Even the Blues in lowly 13th spot overall are not yet mathematically out of the running for the playoffs, indicating just how tense the closing fortnight of ordinary season will be.
The Lions may now be the most successful in log-points terms (35) of the strictly South African sides, but they have the Bulls (34) and Sharks (33) breathing down their necks.
That said, the Durban-based team did themselves no favours by getting nothing from their fractious home tussle with the Hurricanes – a 30-17 reverse – and renewed question marks around coach Robert du Preez’s use of backline substitutions.
On present form, the KwaZulu-Natalians look unlikely bets to cross the Atlantic and topple the buoyant Jaguares on Saturday, and they then round off with what might just be one of those “only room for one” sort of tussles with the Stormers, who are stretching their squad resources to the very limits, at Newlands.
One ray of light for Robbie Fleck’s charges is that, given their present injury crisis, the Sunwolves as next opponents in Cape Town is exactly the kind of assignment on paper that you would seek, while a few bumps and bruises to certain personnel heal (though they also have a worrisome, expanding list of players confirmed out for the season).
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Bulls, 09:35; Reds v Blues, 11:45. Saturday: Crusaders v Rebels, 09:35; Waratahs v Brumbies, 11:45; Lions v Hurricanes, 15:05; Stormers v Sunwolves, 17:15; Jaguares v Sharks, 21:40. Bye: Chiefs.
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