Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The
Lions’ significant loss of steam, coupled with the unexpected charge of the
Jaguares recently, has made a lottery - an unintentionally compelling one - of
the South African Conference in Super Rugby.
almost write off, already, any prospect of a team from our neck of the woods
topping the overall table after ordinary season to tee up rights to a potential
home final; it’s massively likely that honour will go to a New Zealand outfit,
either of the Crusaders or Hurricanes.
have established a clear superiority in log points accumulation at this
juncture, the defending champions boasting 38 from 10 matches (of 16) and the
‘Canes 36 from nine.
weekend has again produced awfully little evidence to suggest that a South
African or Australian conference side will dazzle sufficiently in the “final
straight” to top the combined pile by mid-July.
By losing a
second successive overseas tour fixture on Saturday (28-19 to the Hurricanes in
typically windy Wellington), the Lions were left on 31 points from 11 matches,
and still one tricky game to negotiate in NZ - Highlanders in Dunedin on
Saturday - before heading home.
ground to make up, even if the Otago side will be vulnerable to travel fatigue
after flying back from a 38-12 thumping at the hands of the moody (though collectively
quite magnificent on this occasion) Sharks at Kings Park.
lost five of 11 matches, the Lions look anything but the side of 2016 and 2017,
competition runners-up each time.
still, nevertheless, seem the best bets to at least win the SA conference, even
with a no less modest pack closing in on them.
Bruin’s charges must be grateful that they boast a seven-strong haul of bonus
points: it is by that very margin that they lead the revitalised, now
second-placed Jaguares (24 points) in the group.
Lions enthusiasts, and plenty of Springbok ones as well, are waiting with huge
anxiety to learn the outcome of scans early next week to powerhouse hooker
Malcolm Marx, who limped off the pitch in the first quarter at the Cake Tin on
Argentinean side, coming off a fabulous Australasian pilgrimage in which they
have beaten, in this order, the Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Chiefs, have won as
many matches as the Lions ... but cannot show a single bonus point.
drawback is also doing a lot to keep every other team in the wobbly SA
conference still deeply interested in overhauling them, and possibly even the
full-house victory over the Highlanders, the Sharks advanced to 23 points from
10 matches and middle spot among the five sides.
South African group is also the most open, in many respects, of the three
between top (Lions) and bottom (Bulls) is only 11 points, and the men from
Loftus, even as they digest the disappointment of a clear-cut 29-17 derby
defeat to the Stormers at sun-baked and healthily-attended Newlands, do have
the comfort of a game in hand.
the margin between best (Crusaders) and worst (Blues) in the runaway NZ
conference is 21 points, and in the Aussie group - Waratahs in charge,
Sunwolves with the wooden spoon - it is an even more gaping 23.
So if you
want to look at things parochially rather than more internationally in Super
Rugby 2018 from here, you might argue that a late-season, fierce “Currie Cup”
scrap of sorts is taking shape: all five sides could still claim the
conference, given a decent run.
question will be whether any team is truly capable of putting a notable
sequence together, even if the Jaguares of late have shown the way.
for instance, are a serious enigma whilst the Stormers continue to unfailingly
triumph at home, while still showing a sad, winless record away.
the Jaguares continuing their hot streak and creating the prospect,
embarrassing to many South Africans, of clinching the conference?
everything they do from here will be strictly within the confines,
interestingly, of the group itself, as these are their remaining obligations after
a well-earned bye next weekend: Bulls (h), Sharks (h), Stormers (h), Bulls (a)
and Sharks (a).
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams
first, all kick-offs SA time):
v Hurricanes, 09:35; Saturday: Sunwolves v Reds, 05:15; Crusaders v Waratahs,
07:15; Highlanders v Lions, 09:35; Brumbies v Rebels, 11:45; Stormers v Chiefs,
15:05; Bulls v Sharks, 17:15. Bye: Jaguares.
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