Crucial fortnight for SA teams

Another win for the Lions could see them topping the South African conference after nine rounds of Vodacom Super Rugby. JON CARDINELLI reports.

The combined log doesn’t make for pleasant reading if you’re a South African rugby supporter. After eight rounds, only one South African side, namely the Bulls, is among the top-six placed teams.

Of those six teams, the Bulls have accumulated the fewest log points (19). If log positions were based purely on points, then the Bulls would be in sixth place rather than in third.

This puts the South African Super Rugby challenge into perspective. It has not been a great season to date for the country’s two great title hopes, the Bulls and Sharks. The former lost to the Lions at Ellis Park recently, while the latter suffered a 52-10 hammering to the Crusaders at Kings Park.

Both will be under pressure to bounce back in the coming round. Interestingly, if both the Bulls and the Sharks lose this weekend, and the Stormers drop yet another game Down Under, then the Lions will move to the top of the South African conference.

Johan Ackermann’s side have played some good rugby over the past five weeks. They exceeded every expectation when they won three games in Australasia and surprised a lot of people when they edged the Bulls at Ellis Park on Saturday. The first game that follows an overseas tour is usually the toughest, but the Lions showed no signs of fatigue when they scored in the final play against the Bulls.

And yet, their fitness and resolve will be put to the test again this coming Saturday when they host a desperate Sharks side at Ellis Park. That clash will mark the Lions’ ninth consecutive match.

Can the Lions finish the first part of their season on a high? They certainly won’t be wanting for motivation. Following the Sharks match, they will enjoy their first bye. If they manage to beat the Sharks, who look very beatable after leaking eight tries against the Crusaders, they will move up the Super Rugby ladder. There is also a chance the Lions will finish the round at the top of the South African conference.

The Waratahs will be favourites to beat the Stormers in Sydney, a result that would mark the Cape side’s fourth-straight loss. And if the Reds surprise the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday afternoon, it will give the Lions another reason to slay the Sharks at Ellis Park later that evening.

The Bulls and Sharks need to get moving with regards to their Super Rugby campaign. The former has lost three from seven, while the latter has dropped four from eight. They need to win their respective games this weekend to ensure they take some confidence into a crucial meeting at Kings Park in round 10.

The Bulls are in a more favourable position given that their next four games are in South Africa. If they can build some momentum at this stage, they will be well-placed when they head Down Under to play the Blues, Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels.

The Sharks, on the other hand, need to respond immediately. A loss to the Lions and then to the Bulls could be damaging to their play-off prospects, let alone their title hopes. Thereafter, they will have a tough assignment in Australasia with matches against the Highlanders, Hurricanes, Waratahs and Reds.

No South African side has announced itself as genuine title-contenders as yet. That statement has been made by the Hurricanes of New Zealand, who recently showed they can win ugly as well as beautifully, and that they have a great balance between attack and defence.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Jon Cardinelli