Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Plucky losing finalists for all of the last three years, the threat mounted significantly on Saturday that the Lions will fail to even make the Super Rugby knockout phase this year.
By earning nothing at all in log points terms from a clear-cut 37-17 home defeat to the Hurricanes, Swys de Bruin's charges are flirting dangerously with elimination next weekend, unless they can beat neighbours the Bulls at their Loftus stronghold in the vital closing round.
It looks increasingly as if that's what they'll have to do, as domestic rivals the Stormers - far from perfect, weakened on paper and failing to get a "full house" result - nevertheless eked out a 31-18 victory over the Sunwolves at Newlands to get within one point of the sixth-placed Lions (35) on the overall table.
In the Capetonians' favour in the last round is that they will tackle the Sharks in another derby, but again on home turf while their opponents will have made the long haul back from Buenos Aires, where they were due to play almost certain SA conference winners the Jaguares in the late kick-off of the current round.
So it is beginning to look as if the Stormers' failure to land the bonus point for try margin may not matter too much next weekend: simply beat the Sharks and they should be safe for a wildcard berth on 38 points.
Last year, remember, 36 points was enough to ensure the KwaZulu-Natalians squeezed into the playoffs in eighth, though also not enough for the Melbourne Rebels who ended on the same tally.
The scramble for the finals series will only get more intriguing if the Sharks manage to upset the Jaguares, though they were not going to enter the clash as favourites.
Robert du Preez's outfit stay in the hunt next weekend regardless of the result in Argentina, and are one of several teams (also including Stormers, Rebels, Chiefs and Highlanders) who could still knock the Lions several places down the ladder and out of the KOs phase, if the Jo'burgers come up badly short in Pretoria.
The Highveld derby could be a humdinger, given the Bulls' (36 points) own keenness to ensure a finals series passage; they will be coming off a very credible Australasian tour featuring a win, two draws and one loss.
Just based on showings in the current round (where the Bulls earned a key, come-from-behind draw with the Highlanders in Dunedin), Handre Pollard and company may be deemed favourites for the cross-Hennops game, although their impediment will be travel fatigue: for the Lions it is just a coach ride up the freeway.
Saturday's outcome between the Lions and Hurricanes at Ellis Park yet again demonstrated how, from a situation of all-square at 10-10 at the break, a New Zealand team is no longer fazed by the old adage of "the altitude factor getting to them in the second half".
The 'Canes notched four tries in the second period, as it was instead their hosts who ran out of mojo - not helped by seeing in-form loosie marauder Kwagga Smith helped off with a hamstring injury in the first half.
Meanwhile at Newlands soon afterwards, the Stormers hardly had "title material" written all over them in repelling the basement Sunwolves with their strongly makeshift team.
Blooding a few outright rookies, they were unable to get into a proper rhythm much of the time, but there was sufficient determination and energy from their ranks - epitomised by an inspired, almost demonic No 8 Jaco Coetzee, two days short of his 23rd birthday - to get the basic job done against motivated opponents.
As the clock wound down, Robbie Fleck's charges seemed to know it all comes down to the Sharks derby a week onward ...
Last-round matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Waratahs, 09:35; Rebels v Chiefs, 11:45. Saturday: Jaguares v Sunwolves, 00:10; Hurricanes v Blues, 09:35; Brumbies v Reds, 11:45; Stormers v Sharks, 15:05; Bulls v Lions, 17:15. Bye: Crusaders.
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