The Lions go into the June break with a six-point lead at the top of the South African group. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Lions have finished this part of the Super Rugby conference stage at the top of the South African group. Saturday's win against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld has taken them six points clear of the next best side in South Africa, the Stormers, and as many as seven points ahead of their closest Africa 2 conference rivals, the Sharks.
The result at Loftus is not the end of the world for the Sharks. In fact, Gary Gold’s side is currently in the wildcard position of the South African group. The Bulls, who went into round 14 in second position, are now on the outer.
The Super Rugby tournament will now break for the June Tests. The six South African franchises will have a month to reflect on their performances thus far, and indeed what they need to do in the three rounds that follow the break.
The Lions are in a commanding position. They will play two of those three matches at Ellis Park (against the Sharks and Kings). Their final conference fixture is against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. The Lions will fancy their chances in Argentina after thrashing the Jaguares earlier in the season.
The Sharks are still in the running for the playoffs. A win against the Lions at Ellis Park will boost their qualification chances considerably. They will be favourites to win their last two games against the Cheetahs and Sunwolves. Both of the latter fixtures will be staged at Kings Park.
It seems unlikely that the Africa 1 conference will supply more than one qualifier. The Bulls and the Stormers will be jousting for first place in that conference. Based on the standings at this stage, the Stormers should be the more confident of the two teams.
That said, the Stormers will embark on a potentially tricky tour to Australia in July. If the Stormers lose to the Rebels in Melbourne, they will be under pressure to win big in the subsequent matches against the Force in Perth and the Kings in Cape Town.
The Bulls will play the Jaguares (away), Sunwolves (home) and Cheetahs (away). They need to win all three games to keep the heat on the Sharks. They may need a couple of try-scoring bonus points as well to surpass the Stormers at the top of the Africa 1 conference.
The Cheetahs face a fight to finish ahead of the three Super Rugby newcomers (the Jaguares, Kings and Sunwolves) in the South African group. The Kings are no longer in last place following their win against the Jaguares in Port Elizabeth. However, the Eastern Cape franchise will be hard pressed to avoid the wooden spoon. They will face the Highlanders, Lions and Stormers after the break.
Meanwhile, four New Zealand sides currently occupy the qualifying places in the Australasian group. The Crusaders’ recent win against the Blues has earned them the lead. The fourth-best Kiwi side, the Highlanders, are seven log points behind the Crusaders.
The Brumbies lead the Australia conference by virtue of their superior win record. At this stage, it appears as if only one side from Australia will progress to the playoffs. The fight between the Brumbies and Waratahs for that Australian conference title, and more importantly a qualifying place, will intensify after the June break.
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