Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Suddenly the Lions’ first of four tour fixtures across the Indian Ocean, against the Waratahs in Sydney on Friday, shapes up as potentially their most important of the Super Rugby quartet.
You might call it an eight-pointer in terms of its significance to conference considerations, as a stronger risk has cropped up now that Swys de Bruin’s charges - tournament runners-up in both 2016 and 2017 - could miss out on home-staging rights to a semi-final this year.
The New Zealand challenge looks collectively dominant all over again but, a little unusually, even the Australian group is looking a bit more compelling than the South African one at this roughly midway stage of ordinary season … with the resurgent Waratahs a key driver of that phenomenon.
The best two of the trio of conference winners are assured of home semis should they advance that far, with the top team from the “worst” conference only guaranteed a home quarter-final.
A glance at the overall table after the latest round of matches shows that the Waratahs, although currently third overall behind the Lions, could well be considered in a better position: they are only a point behind them, with a game in hand.
The Australian conference has taken on a completely different shape over the last four weeks or so with the ‘Tahs, champions in 2014, leapfrogging the flagging Rebels and on a golden run of four successive victories.
In order, they have seen off in that period the Rebels themselves (51-27), Brumbies (24-17), Sunwolves (50-29) and most recently the Reds (37-16).
Although good things invariably come to an end at some point, they will feel extremely bullish about taking on the Lions at Allianz Stadium (Friday, 11:45) under current circumstances.
Whereas a few weeks back the Lions’ - then in much better fettle themselves - might have been tipped to win both Australian matches on tour (they face the so-so Reds next), the Waratahs now look a much tougher hurdle to vault.
So if the Lions can’t manage to hit the ground running, and fall to a fourth defeat in nine matches, the side from New South Wales will shift in front of them overall and also start to look a lot likelier to pip them in the end-of-roster pecking order.
In the Lions’ favour is that they toured Australia superbly last season (when they avoided NZ travel altogether under the format at the time), winning all three games: Force, Rebels and Brumbies.
But not only is the Waratahs game of huge significance just between the two sides, it may set a vital tone for the Lions’ entire safari.
Whatever happens to them in Sydney, the men from Jo’burg move on to what seems a “must win” fixture in Brisbane, against a Reds side the weakest placed overall (12th) of every team they will encounter on tour.
The Lions will not need reminding of just how difficult it is these days for South African teams to win in New Zealand, where they must then tackle the Hurricanes (tournament front-runners at present) and Highlanders.
Considering the general shakiness of the SA conference, a haul of two wins from four abroad would have to be considered a decent return for the Lions, despite their strength in each of the last two seasons.
Anything less, and not only will hopes of a South African-hosted semi only look bleaker, but a door possibly even creaks open to the Bulls or another team to overtake them to domestic conference supremacy.
Fresh off their 40-10 trouncing of the Sharks in Durban, John Mitchell’s charges now face the Rebels in Pretoria, a game many will back them to clinch, so if the Lions play second fiddle in Sydney, the SA group will start to change with some earnest its one-horse-race look.
Just how productive their tour is could depend to a considerable degree on how quickly Warren Whiteley, expected to be on the long-haul flight, reacclimatises to Super Rugby after being absent from the competition since the unexpected home reverse suffered against the Blues back on March 10.
They just seem so much more cohesive and assured when their talismanic captain is on duty, and he brings some clever dimensions to their play in the important conduit berth of eighth-man, too …
Reminder of Lions’ tour itinerary:
Friday, April 20: Waratahs, Sydney (11:45 SA time)
Saturday, April 28: Reds, Brisbane (07:05)
Saturday, May 5: Hurricanes, Wellington (09:35)
Saturday, May 12: Highlanders, Dunedin (09:35)
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