Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Is the South African conference simply going to keep shooting itself in the foot as Super Rugby 2018 inches toward the end of ordinary season?
Although the Lions - favourites to knock over the lowly Brumbies in Johannesburg on Saturday (17:15) – retain their lead in the group and artificially cling to second overall, the conference remains tight from the top to its very bottom, where even the Stormers aren’t yet totally out of the playoffs picture.
What the general pattern of mediocrity among the five teams means, though, is that they are in fairly similar circumstances to the Australian group … making for a grim struggle over who claims the vital second berth overall ahead of the finals series.
Barring some loopy developments over the remainder of the ordinary roster, one of several high-flying, considerably superior New Zealand teams is going to bank top spot, which also brings guarantees to a home final if that outfit goes all the way to it.
So the scramble for controversial second - not exactly based on “merit”, but with a home semi nevertheless the big attraction - could hot up considerably between SA and Aussie rivals over the remaining weeks.
In that respect, the currently Aussie-leading Waratahs remain in a reasonably favourable position on paper to haul in the Lions.
Going into the latest weekend officially sitting third overall, they have played two games fewer than the Highveld side, but are only five points shy of them (26 versus 31).
That makes it imperative that the Lions, on a three-game losing streak after an overseas tour that petered out badly from a brilliant start against the very ‘Tahs, don’t trip up against the Brumbies.
Should the men from Canberra upset the form book at Emirates Airline Park, the Waratahs will stay in close striking distance of the Lions, even if they in turn slip up in Saturday’s home date with the Highlanders - a game that may be close, despite the embarrassingly mounting Australian hoodoo against NZ teams.
On the plus side from a South African perspective, a Lions triumph over the Brumbies and Highlanders victory in Sydney will increase the gap very usefully, helping to allay fears that an Aussie outfit will pinch that important “rights to a home semi” ticket.
The Rebels, only team in the competition on a bye this weekend, are the second-best Australian team at this point, and in a very similar situation performance-wise to a handful of SA conference sides.
They are a tenuous one point clear of the Jaguares, Bulls and Sharks, having played exactly as many matches.
What the SA group doesn’t need this weekend is another collectively indecisive one, only adding to the dog-eat-dog hallmark it has carried for a few weeks now.
The Lions do look best equipped in this round to start pulling clear, but the congestion will only aggravate further if they lose - sadly not impossible considering how much of their 2016 and 2017 mojo has gone missing this year.
There has also been unsettling distraction this week of the legal rumpus – charges alleging his indecent assault of a hotel staffer in Australia - surrounding defence coach Joey Mongalo.
They need a resounding win in the Big Smoke (ideally with a bonus point) against the Brumbies to re-announce themselves as possible title contenders.
South African teams all know from Super Rugby history how difficult it is to win knockout games abroad, and the prospect of going all the way to the silverware by any one of them would only weaken further if even a home semi opportunity is allowed to fritter away.
The last finals series triumph by a South African team overseas was when the Sharks beat the Reds 30-17 in a Brisbane quarter-final in July 2012.
They did very well to then return to our shores and beat the Stormers in a Newlands semi, before having to board a long-haul flight yet again to tackle the Chiefs in the showpiece: they were inevitably thumped 37-6.
Here is a recap of the remaining matches for the Lions and Waratahs, the teams challenging most fiercely at present for that second overall finish:
Lions (played 12, 31 points): Brumbies (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (a), Bulls (h)
Waratahs (played 10, 26 points): Highlanders (h), Chiefs (a), Reds (a), Rebels (a), Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (h)
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