The Lions remain in touch with the trendsetting Crusaders while the Sharks are less secure, following their loss to a spirited Kings side in round 12 of the Super Rugby tournament, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Lions beat the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday to finish their three-game tour to Australia with 14 log points. They currently sit at the top of the South African group with 46 points in total.
The Crusaders beat the Hurricanes on Saturday to record their 11th straight win in 2017. The Cantabrians are the only side that boasts more log points (50) than the Lions.
If the conference stage was to end tomorrow, the Crusaders would be in a position to host a potential final. The Lions may yet close the gap, though, or even surpass the Crusaders in the remaining rounds.
The Lions are coming off a taxing tour to Australia. They showed signs of fatigue in the recent clash against the Brumbies, and some might feel that they are due a loss.
However, South Africa's form team will have the benefit of playing their next fixture at home. They will play against one of the worst-performing South African teams in 2017, namely the Bulls.
The Bulls blew a great chance to beat the Highlanders at Loftus Versfeld this past Saturday. They did enough to claim a losing bonus point from that contest, but not enough to improve on their standing (sixth) in the South African group.
Will they add to their log-points tally over the next two weeks? Few will bet on the Bulls to beat the Lions at Ellis Park next Saturday, or to down the Hurricanes at Loftus the week after.
The Kings beat the Sharks in Port Elizabeth to record their first-ever Super Rugby victory against a South African side. Deon Davids's side has claimed four wins in 2017 – a franchise record for wins in a single season – and currently boast a four-point lead over the Bulls in the South African group.
The Kings will host the Brumbies in round 13. They've already beaten two Australian teams this season, namely the Waratahs and Rebels. They will be looking to claim another Aussie scalp and another win overall.
The Kings aren't in a position to challenge for a playoff place. And yet, they could well finish the conference stage ahead of the Bulls and Cheetahs.
The Sharks were exposed in the recent clash in Port Elizabeth. They had the opportunity to claim a win and strengthen their position in the South African group standings, but failed to take it.
Not that the Jaguares punished the Sharks for that failure. The Argentines went down 16-6 to the Force in Buenos Aires on Saturday. They remain eight points behind the Sharks in the South African group.
The contest for that third qualifying spot in the South African group will intensify in the coming weeks. The Sharks will play the Sunwolves in Singapore and then the Stormers in Durban. After a bye in round 13, the Jaguares will host the Brumbies in Buenos Aires.
The Stormers remain safe at the top of the Africa 1 conference, despite having a bye in round 12. Eleven points separate the Stormers and Bulls, while 15 stand between the Stormers and Cheetahs. The Cape side looks to be on course for qualification, despite their recent struggles in New Zealand.
Indeed, the Stormers could lose to the Blues in Cape Town this coming Friday and still enjoy a commanding lead over the Bulls and Cheetahs. The Bulls will be underdogs against the Lions, while the Cheetahs should struggle to keep the Hurricanes honest in Wellington.
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