The Lions must pick their strongest available team to play the Jaguares on Saturday, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
They have to aim for a five-point return, which would guarantee them finishing as the overall league winners in a very complicated Super Rugby format.
History has shown the advantage of hosting playoff matches, especially the final. In the 20 years of Super Rugby, the team finishing first in the league has been the champions 13 times.
This is unchartered territory for the Lions and they can ill-afford to stumble in the last 80 minutes. They have certainly benefited from playing in a conference that includes Argentina newcomers the Jaguares and the returning Kings. They have also had the wood on the inconsistent Sharks.
The Lions played four New Zealand teams in the league structure. The Stormers did not play a New Zealand team. The Lions lost three of their five matches against Kiwi opposition (their only defeats) and scored a notable win against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The competition structure continues to be condemned for being illogical, unfair and weighted for and against some teams. The New Zealand conference has produced the best teams and four of the five Kiwi teams will make the eight-team playoffs, but just one will host a quarter-final.
The Australian conference winners appear to be the Brumbies, who a few days ago were smashed 40-15 by New Zealand’s fifth-ranked team, the Blues. The Brumbies will host a playoff, yet will finish 11 league points behind the Crusaders, who will have to win away from home for the right to play in a semi-final.
The New Zealand conference is so congested that the fourth-placed Hurricanes, who because of the tournament format are ranked seventh in the overall league, could still end up winning the overall league.
This is not the weekend for taking liberties or for resting players because of winning the respective conferences. The bigger picture is what happens after the quarter-finals.
The Lions lead the overall table by a point before the Chiefs, with both teams in great form. The Chiefs accounted for the Crusaders and put 50 on the Reds in Brisbane, while the Lions were brilliant in dismantling the Sharks and put 57 on the Kings at the weekend.
The Lions hosting a final would be decidedly different from the Lions having to travel to New Zealand for a final.
It is why the Lions can take no chances in Buenos Aires. They have to pick their best to get the best winning result in a tournament in which the final league standing will only be determined after the Lions complete the final match of the league season.
The New Zealand leading quartet and the Lions have been the best teams, while the Brumbies and Stormers have produced cameos more than consistent performances of champions-in-waiting.
The Sharks can still claim the eighth qualifying position and don’t be too dismissive of their challenge. They showed excellent qualities when touring New Zealand and were within a score of winning all matches against Kiwi opposition. The Sharks, outside of the two beatings from the Lions, have looked better than all the Australian teams and have had the edge on the Stormers, Cheetahs and Kings.
New Zealand’s incomparable overall depth was translated into a thumping 3-0 Test series win against Wales and a one-off 40-7 win for the Chiefs against Wales.
SA’s depth is limited and there is not much outside the Lions, Sharks and Stormers while Australia’s rugby is now at an all-time low in the professional era.
Never in the history of the competition have Australian teams offered so little.
Super Rugby performances have put into perspective England’s 3-0 series win against Australia.
We do not know how England would have coped in New Zealand or SA, but we do know they played the weakest of the three nations in Australia, whose Super Rugby returns have been dismal.
New Zealand, with four teams in the last eight, represent the strongest challenge, but the Lions, if they can get five points in Buenos Aires, have the greatest advantage of playing all their playoff matches at home.
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