Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – There is precious little reason for the Lions to be feeling too bleak about Super Rugby right now, but the continued all-conquering habit of the Crusaders must be at least moderately irksome to Warren Whiteley and company.
After all, the Highveld outfit are doing everything possible to tee up rights to a potential home final in 2017.
Last season’s runners-up, who had to travel long-haul to Wellington for last season’s surrendered final against the Hurricanes, are much better placed after 11 matches this year than they were last.
At the equivalent juncture in 2016, the Lions had already lost three ordinary-season fixtures (Highlanders away, Crusaders and Hurricanes home).
This season, they have smartened their winning act to the extent that only one reverse has been experienced (Jaguares in Buenos Aires, with a weakened starting XV) after 11 outings.
Just their rotten luck, then, that the legendary Crusaders (50 log points) have chosen this campaign to threaten a return to past glories: they are four points ahead of the second best-placed Lions (46) overall, courtesy of a 100 percent record.
The Cantabrians overcame a really major hurdle on Saturday when, just having flown back from South Africa, they beat NZ conference rivals and defending champions the Hurricanes 20-12 in Christchurch.
It was probably not the result the Lions, returning to SA in robust health from an all-wins tour of Australia, wanted, even if there are still several other threats in the race for top spot from that country.
Frankly, the serious possibility remains that the Crusaders go through their entire ordinary-season programme unbeaten: left for them are Chiefs (in neutral Suva, Fiji, on Friday), Rebels (away), Highlanders (home) and Hurricanes (away).
That still seems clearly a more difficult route than the Lions have, as the Jo’burgers now hungrily weigh up three home games on the trot – Bulls on Saturday, then Kings and Sunwolves – before ending with a Durban derby against the Sharks.
The Lions need to keep their collective eyes firmly on the ball, and hope that somewhere along the line the Crusaders do slip up to give them a chance of a leapfrog to premier berth across the competition.
But if they don’t lose another game, the ‘Saders will set a maiden landmark for becoming first team since the advent of an extended, 18-team competition last year to go right through ordinary season with a full house of victories.
Last season, eventual finalists the Hurricanes and Lions each lost four times in their 15 “league” matches, telling you just how high-quality and consistently switched-on the Crusaders have been thus far in 2017.
They are invitingly poised to match their own prior record of going through a whole pre-knockout season with a 100 percent record, even if it happened in 2002 when it was smaller Super 12 and only involved 11 matches per team.
That year, the Crusaders went on to win the title as they also beat the Highlanders in a semi-final and then Brumbies in the Christchurch final – for a perfect 13/13 season record, another first that stands to this day.
The best ever ordinary-season performance by a South African team was in 2012, when Allister Coetzee’s Stormers charges won 14 of 16 games – although they then lost a home semi-final to the Sharks.
This 11-from-11 Crusaders team, who lost their last match of 2016 in the knockout phase to the Lions at Emirates Airline Park, are still a fair way short of matching or eclipsing another of their tournament landmarks: longest stretch without defeat, allowing for seasonal overlap.
That record by them is 17 matches, split between the 2005 and 2006 campaigns, and including one drawn fixture against the Force.
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