The Lions look most capable of breaking South Africa's Super Rugby title drought, but it could well be an all-New Zealand final once again in 2016, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The latest round of action this past weekend marked the movement past the halfway mark of the conference stage. It has quickly flashed by, but enough time has passed to make some clear judgements on the title credentials of the leading sides.
Most encouraging from a South African perspective has been the Lions' ability to carry their domestic form over into Super Rugby. In a historic clash against the Chiefs in Hamilton in round two, they proved they had the beating of New Zealand's conference-leading side, in their own backyard nogal.
And after a tactically naive performance against the Crusaders at the beginning of April, they demonstrated their aptitude to make the necessary adjustments to their game when required, with brains and brawn carrying them to victories over the Sharks and Stormers after their disappointing showing against the Saders.
The most challenging part of the Lions' campaign is over. They've negotiated a three-week overseas tour and will play five of their next seven games at home, although another real test of their title credentials will be posed when they come up against the Hurricanes this weekend, and then the Blues after a bye.
If the Lions can successfully negotiate these next two challenges, though, they'll be powerfully placed to progress to the playoffs, and there's no reason to believe they couldn't go all the way to the final. And from there, anything is possible.
However, it's the South African group-leading Stormers that have an opportunity to continue taking full advantage of a favourable schedule, but they do still have to negotiate a trip to Australia where they will face the Rebels and Force in July.
At the moment, though, the Stormers still appear to lack that all-round edge to suggest they could clinch their first-ever Super Rugby title. Let’s not forget that they’re a young team effectively starting a new era.
The Bulls still appear to be best placed to secure a wildcard-qualifying berth, but they hardly look like title contenders, while the Sharks still face a real battle to recover from a recent slump that has coincided with an immensely challenging schedule. The Cheetahs and Kings, inevitably, are already also-rans.
Again, though, it’s clear that there is a considerable chasm that separates the New Zealand sides from the rest. Last season, the Highlanders and Hurricanes contested a thrilling final. This year, the Crusaders and Chiefs have emerged as the leading Kiwi sides. The Blues, as New Zealand’s bottom-ranked team, have still banked as many points as the Cheetahs and Kings combined.
In their demolition of the Brumbies on Sunday, the Crusaders secured their seventh successive win and sent out the strongest statement yet that they have the capabilities to add to their seven Super Rugby titles. The Chiefs, as the most effective attacking side this season, will also take some beating. As they proved in their win over the Hurricanes on Saturday, despite producing a lacklustre performance.
Don’t rule out the Highlanders or Canes just yet either, and therein lies the rub: there are four New Zealand sides that have title-winning capabilities. In Dan Carter's absence, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga are lining up to claim the No 10 jersey. After the retirement of Richie McCaw, the likes of Sam Cane, Matt Todd and Ardie Savea are on the hunt for the opportunity to take over the mantle.
The New Zealand sides simply remain a cut above the rest. Their attacking ability and inherent skills cannot be matched at this point. Bok coach Allister Coetzee has said he’s willing to ensure the Springboks can evolve their attacking game to a more fast-paced approach, and that he’s been encouraged by the willingness of South Africa’s Super Rugby coaches to move in that direction, but it remains a work in progress.
The Lions are coming closest to perfecting the all-round game that can challenge their Kiwi counterparts, and it’s for this reason that they remain best placed to prevent another all-New Zealand final, and perhaps to even ignite hopes of a South African winner for the first time since 2010.
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