The Lions are in a strong position after winning two matches away from home, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Forget the rousing performance by both forwards and backs in Hamilton on Saturday. Forget the fact that the Lions have recorded their first-ever win again the Chiefs on New Zealand soil.
Instead, focus on the nine log points that have been accumulated in two away matches. The Johannesburg-based side has started the season in the best possible fashion. There’s suddenly good reason to believe they will qualify for the playoffs.
The bonus-point win against the Sunwolves in round one was expected. The 36-32 victory against the Chiefs was not. The result in isolation is worth celebrating. And yet there’s more to cheer about when you consider that the Lions have just two overseas fixtures remaining during the league stage.
They will face the Highlanders in Dunedin this coming Saturday. Thereafter, they will return to South Africa. The Lions’ final overseas fixture against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires will be played in the final round of the regular season. They’ve already racked up nine points from two overseas fixtures. If they can obtain more log points in the next two – and on the basis of their performance in Hamilton, you’d have to say that two wins are certainly possible – they will strengthen their bid for a home playoff.
The teams in Africa 2 were always going to have it tougher than those in Africa 1 in 2016. The Lions will face all five New Zealand franchises, and play two matches against the Jaguares. Those teams in Africa 1 will face the weaker Australian teams and play two matches against the new franchise from Japan, the Sunwolves.
The Lions have been forced to travel early in their campaign. Fortunately, they did enough to bank five log points in Tokyo. The big win in Hamilton now sees them well placed. Following the next game against the Highlanders in Dunedin, the Lions will play the remaining three New Zealand franchises in Johannesburg.
This is what people need to bear in mind when reflecting on the log. The South African group sees the Sharks, Stormers and Lions ranked 1, 2 and 3 respectively. While all three teams have scored nine log points, the Sharks have the best points difference. The Stormers’ have the next best.
Of course, the Sharks and the Stormers have yet to travel overseas. While both teams were dominant in round one, they were both less convincing in round two. The Sharks battled to put away a Jaguares side that at one stage had 13 players on the park. The Stormers struggled through the fixture in Bloemfontein against a Cheetahs side with very few big names.
The Lions can look forward to coming home in the next few weeks. The coastal franchises, however, will know that their season is about to get harder as far as travel and opposition is concerned.
The two will meet in a crucial derby at Newlands this Saturday. Thereafter, the Sharks will travel to Loftus to play a Bulls side that will be desperate to prove a point on its home patch.
The Stormers will face the Brumbies, a side that dominated the 2015 playoff at Newlands and has begun the 2016 season in rampant fashion (the Canberra-based side currently tops the Australasian group). After that, the Stormers will head to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares.
The Argentinian side has looked dangerous in its first two games, both of which have been played in South Africa. They should be expected to improve over the next few weeks and pose an even greater threat when they play in front of their fans at Velez Sarsfield.
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