The Lions could make a further statement with regard to their title ambitions and deal the Stormers a crippling blow in the derby at Newlands on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Vodacom Bulls scored four tries in their demolition of the Stormers last Saturday. The Sharks ran six past the Sunwolves in Singapore. According to the South African conference log, the Bulls are the best local team at present, followed by the Sharks.
The quality of the opposition must be taken into account, though. The Stormers produced one of their worst performances in recent years – particularly at the lineout and on defence. The Sunwolves have been the whipping boys of the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament since the expansion in 2016. Going by their display on Saturday, they look set to suffer more heavy defeats in 2019.
The Lions’ performance in Buenos Aires has not received as much attention or praise. Perhaps this is due to the timing of that fixture – the game was broadcast at 11:40pm in South Africa on Saturday – as well as the usual hype around the north-south derby.
Viewed in isolation, the Lions’ win in Argentina was massive. After three years of travelling to Buenos Aires and losing – they were thumped 49-35 in 2018 – the Lions have come away from South America with a convincing win.
It’s a big statement in the context of their season, too. They’ve got one on their toughest overseas fixtures out of the way, and have four log points to show for their efforts.
The manner in which they defended and managed the contest in Buenos Aires indicated a move towards a more complete approach. Fixtures in this part of the world are notoriously difficult to win, yet the Lions – sans a few senior players who moved on after the 2018 season – evidently had the mental strength to overcome those challenges.
Swys de Bruin’s charges would have taken heart from that showing. That performance has set the tone for the rest of the season and installed the Lions as favourites ahead of a crucial clash against the Stormers at Newlands.
The Stormers, of course, are at the opposite end of the confidence spectrum. Few backed them to win at Loftus Versfeld last week, given the number of off-field issues the coaches and players have been subject to over the past few months. Nobody expected a 37-point defeat, though.
The Stormers coaches and players will talk a big game in the buildup to the next clash. They will claim that their set piece and defensive frailties are fixable, even though those same shortcomings were evident in the pre-season fixture against the Bulls on Superhero Sunday.
The Bulls should be commended for the way they played against the Stormers. A win against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, however, would serve as a greater statement in terms of their progress. The same applies to a Sharks side that will host the Blues in Durban on Saturday.
The Lions have already made a big statement. They could further strengthen their place in the conference with a win against the Stormers.
The Cape side, of course, finds itself in a situation where another loss could see them falling well behind in the conference title race.
The Stormers will play the Sharks away and the Jaguares at home before having a bye in round five. They will be underdogs in that Durban fixture, if their away form in 2018 and this past weekend is any indicator.
If they lose three or even four of their first four fixtures they will be in a precarious position ahead of their Australasian tour.
The Stormers will travel to the Antipodes before any other South African side this year. They are one of two local teams that will play four matches Down Under this year – against the Hurricanes, Blues, Reds and Rebels. The other team set for a four-match tour, namely the Bulls, will have it a bit easier in that they will start in Australia rather than in New Zealand.
The Stormers can’t afford to lose another game to a South African side before they tour. They must beat the Lions at home this Saturday to stay in the conference title race.
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