Lions primed for top prize

The Lions have the defensive tools – and more importantly, the home advantage – to win three playoff matches and ultimately a first Super Rugby crown, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Super Rugby format, and more specifically the tournament’s playoff format, is a farce. Teams like the Lions and Sharks have gone through the conference stage and have qualified for the knockout rounds without facing a single New Zealand team.

Meanwhile, all five New Zealand teams have produced a high standard of rugby over the course of the competition and have racked up a significant number of log points. Yet only one New Zealand side, the Crusaders, will enjoy home advantage in the quarter-finals. Two of the better Kiwi teams, namely the Hurricanes and Chiefs, look set to travel extensively over the coming weeks.

South African fans won’t mind, though. This season, one South African side has made the most of a skewed draw. One would expect them to go on from here and capitalise on a playoff format favouring the top-ranked team.

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The Lions finished the conference stage at the top of the overall standings, and in doing so earned the right to host their remaining matches – a quarter-final as well as a possible semi-final and final – at Ellis Park. The Lions, as well as their Kiwi opponents, will be aware of the fact that no team has travelled across the Indian Ocean to win a Super Rugby decider in the history of the tournament.

The Lions should be too strong for the Sharks in the quarter-finals. The winner of the battle at Ellis Park will face the winner of the clash between the Brumbies and Hurricanes in Canberra. It would be a big ask for the Hurricanes to travel all the way from the Australian capital and slay one of the form teams of the tournament.

It will be interesting to see how the other side of the draw pans out. The Highlanders pushed the Crusaders close in a recent derby between the teams. The Cantabrians, however, are always a different prospect in Christchurch.

If the Crusaders prevail, they will have the advantage over a semi-final opponent that will have to travel from Cape Town to Christchurch. The Chiefs will fancy their chances against the Stormers, a side they beat in the quarter-final at Newlands last year. That said, you wouldn’t bet on the Chiefs going all the way back to New Zealand and knocking over the Crusaders.

Will the Lions be ready for the more challenging clashes against the Hurricanes and Crusaders? The Stormers were smashed 60-21 by the Chiefs at Newlands last year, and in the immediate aftermath Robbie Fleck admitted that his side were wholly unprepared for the New Zealanders' level of intensity. Fleck complained about a conference stage format that denies half of the South African teams an opportunity to test themselves against the crack New Zealand outfits earlier in the season.

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The Lions will need to make a step up in intensity in the coming matches. They collected nine try-scoring bonus points in 15 regular season matches, and were only really tested in the fixture against the Brumbies in Canberra. They lost one match to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires when they fielded a second-string team.

The Lions have improved a great deal since 2016, though. The stats support this assertion. They haven’t played a New Zealand side to date, but something should be read into the fact that the Lions conceded fewer tries than any other side over the course of the conference stage. Only the Hurricanes have scored more tries from first phase.

The Lions have sought to set a dominant platform this season, and have taken more pride in their defence. They have scored the second-most tries and conceded the fewest in the fourth quarter, stats which point to their superior fitness. These are the characteristics that mark them as South Africa’s answer to a Kiwi team, and ultimately South Africa’s best shot at a Super Rugby title.

Their kicking game will be under scrutiny when they host the New Zealand teams in the playoffs. The Lions, like the Crusaders, have not kicked out of hand too often this season. How they handle an aerial assault by a team like the Hurricanes may prove the difference between attaining and falling short of their goal.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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