Lions cling to top spot

The Lions scored the most significant win of round six and remain well-placed at the top of the South African Group, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The teams in the Africa 1 conference will face the five New Zealand franchises this season. Meanwhile, the sides in the Africa 2 conference will compete against the relatively weaker Australian teams. This is what we need to remind ourselves when assessing the performances, and indeed when reading the respective logs, after every round.

The Stormers looked good at Newlands on Saturday. They scored as many as eight tries and 53 points. From an attacking perspective, it's unlikely to get much better than that for the Cape franchise.

What's more, the Stormers now enjoy a commanding lead at the top of the Africa 1 conference. They are 13 points ahead of the next-best team, the Cheetahs. Even at this early stage, they are well-placed to qualify for the quarter-finals.

ALSO READ: Stormers smash Cheetahs

And yet, there is no telling how much this Stormers side has progressed until it has faced up to New Zealand opposition. Indeed, ever since the Stormers lost 60-21 to the Chiefs last year, they have been working hard to develop a style that can bring them success against a Kiwi team.

A resounding win against the Cheetahs is no measure of progress, though. The Cheetahs were terrible at Newlands and will be further exposed when they travel to New Zealand later in the season.

The Stormers' win against the Bulls in round one should also be seen in context. The Bulls went on to lose to the Cheetahs and battled to put away the Sunwolves. They were well beaten by the Blues in Albany and then outlasted by a superior Chiefs side in Hamilton. The Bulls will leave New Zealand with zero log points. Some might say they have the same chance of advancing beyond the conference phase.

ALSO READ: Chiefs outlast Bulls

The Stormers deserve credit for winning their first five matches, and for banking the bonus point in their recent outing against the hapless Cheetahs. That said, their next clash against the Chiefs at Newlands will show how far they've come since that quarter-final loss to the Chiefs, and whether they can challenge the other Kiwi sides when they tour New Zealand.

The Lions and Sharks will avoid the New Zealand teams during the conference stage. On the basis of that schedule, they are at an advantage. Both teams could in fact qualify for the playoffs, as the top three teams in the South African group will advance to the knockout rounds.

The Jaguares might have something to say about that, though. The Argentinian side has made significant tactical strides in the space of 12 months, and currently boast a win record of four in five matches.

The Lions needed to beat the Sharks at Ellis Park in round six to remain in a strong position. Johan Ackermann's side now has 23 log points after six games, and lead the South African group, as well as the Africa 2 conference. They will enjoy a bye in round seven.

ALSO READ: Lions edge Sharks in thriller

The Stormers have only played five games, and some might say they are well placed. One more win, and they will overtake the Lions at the top of the South African group.

But that is easier said than done. Like the Stormers, the Chiefs are unbeaten in this year's competition. Unlike the Stormers, the Chiefs' defence has been as good as their attack.

It's also worth considering who these teams have beaten in the initial stages of the 2017 tournament. The Stormers have downed the Bulls, Jaguares (at home), Kings, Sunwolves and Cheetahs. The Chiefs have beaten the Highlanders, Blues, Hurricanes, Rebels and Bulls. That's right, the Chiefs have already beaten three Kiwi opponents.

The Sharks picked up a losing bonus point in Johannesburg, and that may well prove important with regards to the final standings. They currently sit at fourth in the South African group, behind the Jaguares (due to points difference), and have played one more game than their Argentinian counterparts.

The Sharks have already toured Australia, unlike the Lions who still need to travel. The Sharks can't afford to lose to their fellow Africa 2 title contenders at home, though. They will host the Jaguares at Kings Park in round seven. That match could be as important as the recent game at Ellis Park.

The Bulls will journey to Tokyo to tackle the Sunwolves in round seven. Nollis Marais' charges have to claim five log points from that clash if they hope to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

Fresh off a bye, the Kings will head to Australia to face the Force. While the hosts will be favourites, the Eastern Cape side will target a match against the second-worst ranked Australian side as one they can possibly win.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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Jon Cardinelli