Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The continuation of the damaging, lean spell for the Lions in Super Rugby seems an increasingly bad omen for the broad South African challenge in this year’s competition.
Hugely improved and grimly motivated against relative bogey team the Crusaders on Sunday, the fact remains that a second home match - and third in only seven for them thus far - was surrendered by the 2016 and 2017 runners-up as they succumbed 14-8 to the visibly ecstatic defending champions at Emirates Airline Park.
The result meant that that Lions, the country’s premier title-hope for both of the past two seasons and again after the initial few weeks of 2018, have slipped to their worst start of the three campaigns.
After seven matches last season the Lions, then under the coaching charge of Johan Ackermann, boasted six victories - they would eventually top the overall table after ordinary season - whilst in 2016 they were five from seven.
Just for the moment, their overall berth still looks healthy ... but very deceptively so.
Second only to surprise packages the Melbourne Rebels (played six, 20 points), it is largely because the Lions (played seven, also 20) have had at least one more outing than any other team in the top eight.
Every single one of those six sides below them could, mathematically, haul them in if they won the matches they have in hand (though one or two may be against each other).
For example, the Reds in seemingly distant eighth position have 13 points from five fixtures, so if they won both of their next two games - Brumbies and Waratahs, both away - even without try bonus points in tow, and the Lions lose at home to the Stormers in a derby this Saturday before their bye, the mid-table Queenslanders will have nosed ahead of the best-placed SA side.
Meanwhile above the Reds, several teams are considerably better placed to leapfrog the Lions - like the Hurricanes, a mere one point behind with two matches in hand.
So the picture is set to get generally bleaker for the SA group before any chance of things looking rosier again.
In most seasons since the advent of a conference-based approach in 2011, there has been at least one relative “runaway” South African team, when you consider the competitiveness of the Stormers (second overall in 2011, top in 2012) and more recently the Lions who were second in 2016 and top in 2017.
The Bulls also finished second overall after ordinary season in 2013.
That said, no SA team - despite some extremely favourable “KO” seedings being secured - has yet managed since the big structural change in 2011 to go on to the overall title.
As things stand in 2018, it looks reasonable doubtful - though there is still time for an upturn - that a team from our shores will, for instance, march all the way to a home-based final.
Remember that in both 2016 and 2017, when the “Africa” group was split into two conferences in a larger, 18-team competition, the country dubiously earned two automatic tickets to the playoffs.
This year, there is only one guaranteed knockout spot (to the SA conference winners), and that may yet mean an away semi-final if there is a superior team from both New Zealand and Australia above our best outfit.
It is unusual - and perhaps a little alarming - that the Aussie group continues to look better-performing in general terms than the SA equivalent, even as the NZ conference staying supreme is no surprise at all.
Just imagine what an increased “dog’s breakfast” the SA group becomes, too, in the event – not completely out of the question? - that the second-placed Stormers (ninth overall) knock over the Lions in their own backyard in Saturday’s next round.
Quite a few neutrals in this country are likely to wish the Lions to get back to winning ways, if only because they still seem the country’s best hope at this point of a healthy run to, and then through, the knockouts.
Nevertheless, the Lions are also the only SA team yet to undertake their ever-taxing Australasian venture, which only begins on April 20 against the Waratahs in Sydney ...
Remaining matches for SA teams to June break:
Lions (P7: 20 points - 2nd overall): Stormers (h), bye, Waratahs (a), Reds (a), Hurricanes (a), Highlanders (a), Brumbies (h), Stormers (a)
Stormers (P7: 13 points - 9th overall): Lions (a), bye, Sharks (a), Rebels (h), Bulls (h), Chiefs (h), Sunwolves (a), Lions (h)
Sharks (P6: 13 points - 10th overall): Hurricanes (a), Bulls (h), Stormers (h), bye, Highlanders (h), Bulls (a), Chiefs (h), Jaguares (a)
Bulls: (P6: 9 points - 12th overall): Bye, Sharks (a), Rebels (h), Highlanders (h), Stormers (a), Sharks (h), Jaguares (a), Brumbies (h).
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