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    S18: Lions seem SA’s top title shot

    2016-05-22 08:10

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The chances have only increased that if there is to be a South African winner of the Vodacom Super Rugby crown this year, it may well come from the more difficult of the two domestic conferences on paper.

    Although the Lions and Sharks were handed notably the trickier 2016 rosters than fellow local heavyweights the Bulls and Stormers - by virtue of playing New Zealand rather than Australian teams in ordinary season - it is beginning to look as though the first two are actually more credible hunters for a first SA title success since the last Bulls triumph in faraway 2010.

    The latest round (Week 13) has seen further encouraging gains for the sides coached by Johan Ackermann and Gary Gold, as they ran in eight tries each in respective home thrashings of the Jaguares and Kings on Saturday.

    Both earned the maximum five log points in doing so, and the Lions (37) currently stand two clear of the Sharks (35, albeit after an extra game) and five ahead of the Bulls (32) in the collective South African group.

    By crashing 17-13 in the Pretoria derby, the Stormers, who have not won in three matches, also suffered the indignity of being elbowed out of the quarter-final berths as things stand - they are level on points with Africa Conference 1 rivals the Bulls but trail because of their six victories to the Bulls’ seven.

    It is still reasonably wide open, with four rounds left, in terms of who will eventually top each “Africa” conference and also which one of the big quartet will miss out on the knockout phase.

    But there’s a good case for arguing that momentum, form and playing style point to either of the Lions or Sharks doing the country proudest in the run-in to the silverware.

    Warren Whiteley and company have run in 15 tries over the course of their last two dates, going one better in dry conditions against the Argentineans than they managed in awful weather against the Blues a few days ago.

    It is that confidence with ball in hand, and the vital architecture provided by Elton Jantjies at flyhalf, that makes them possibly the prime SA candidates from here to deny still-rampant New Zealand a second Super Rugby title in succession.

    That said, if the Lions are on a two-game winning streak, the Sharks are three from three at present (chopping down the Hurricanes, Jaguares and Kings in that order) and will revel in the several weeks off now - they have a bye ahead of the June Test window - before their closing trio of fixtures against the Lions (a massive Jo’burg date on July 2), Cheetahs and Sunwolves.

    The Lions are riding far higher in the competition than they are used to, as they are third among the 18 teams on the basis of log points earned; their tally of 37 is eclipsed only by the Chiefs on 42 and Crusaders on 41.

    A tempering note, however, is that their next two games are tough all-SA affairs against the Bulls at Loftus next Saturday, and then the Sharks (Emirates Airline Park) in the first game back after the June Test period.

    If they surrender the “eight-point swing” game against the Sharks, especially, their own conference will become as tight as Africa Conference 1, where the Bulls so needed - and deservedly got - their home win against the Stormers.

    Locked on 32 points each, you decide which franchise will earn more points in the four-match run-in: the Bulls’ roster is Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Sunwolves (h) and Cheetahs (a), whereas the Stormers have Cheetahs (h), Rebels (a), Force (a) and Kings (h).

    Of the four frontline SA challengers this year, it is the Stormers around whom most doubts presently swirl, particularly as their attack - some would mutter “what attack?” - looks too stubbornly blunt and easy to read.

    They dominated possession and territory and had roughly double the number of carries at Loftus, yet more often than not ran into a dogged wall of Bulls defenders who robustly drove them back and also gave them all sorts of angst at both of the set-pieces and on the deck.

    On an otherwise ho-hum night in entertainment terms, Bulls players to enhance their credentials with urgent, muscular displays included RG Snyman, Jannes Kirsten, Marcel van der Merwe and captain Adriaan Strauss.

    Still, based on Pretoria evidence, new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee’s selection plans may have got foggier rather than commanded more clarity as the visit by the Irish draws ever closer.

    Instead several sprightly Lions contenders, a bit further down the highway, only stuck their hands further in the air, among them being Messrs Jantjies, De Klerk, Mapoe, Combrinck, Kriel and Whiteley.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 17 February 2018
    • Stormers v Jaguares, Cape Town 15:05
    • Lions v Sharks, Emirates Airlines Park 17:15
    Friday, 23 February 2018
    • Highlanders v Blues, 08:35
    • Rebels v Reds, AAMI Park 10:45
    Saturday, 24 February 2018
    • Sunwolves v Brumbies, Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium 06:15
    • Crusaders v Chiefs, 08:35
    • Waratahs v Stormers, Allianz Stadium 10:45
    • Lions v Jaguares, Emirates Airlines Park 15:05
    • Bulls v Hurricanes, Loftus Versfeld 17:15

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