Lions strengthen position

Wins for the Lions and Bulls have heaped pressure on the struggling Sharks, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Sharks claimed a bonus point in their 23-18 defeat to the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. Later on, in Johannesburg, the Lions picked up a deserved win against the Stormers to extend their lead at the top of the Africa 2 conference by five log points.

The Lions have played the most balanced brand of rugby of all the South African teams in 2016. They made an early statement when they beat the trendsetting Chiefs in Hamilton. No other side has beaten the New Zealand conference and Australasian group leaders this year.

Thanks to their recent win over the Stormers, the Lions remain in a strong position to top their conference and possibly the South Africa group. The Stormers did enough to secure a losing bonus point in the recent derby in Johannesburg, and may be favourites to beat the Reds and Waratahs at Newlands in the coming weeks. That said, the Cape side still has to tour to Australia, whereas the Lions have already completed their sojourn to New Zealand.

The Sharks may be disappointed with the Stormers' failed attempts to stall the Lions’ march to victory. However, Gary Gold’s men should be grateful that the Stormers stopped the Lions from claiming a try-scoring bonus point. Had the Lions bagged a full house of log points, they would be six clear at the top of Africa 2.

The scrap for that third qualifying berth will intensify in the coming weeks. The Bulls beat the Reds convincingly this past Saturday, and are now only one log point behind the Stormers in Africa 1. They continue to occupy that qualifying berth in the South African group, as they are six points ahead of the Sharks. That said, that lead could have been seven had the Bulls claimed the try-scoring bonus point against the Reds.

Looking ahead to round nine, it seems likely that the Lions will consolidate their lead at the top of Africa 2. A bonus-point win against the Kings will boost the Lions closer to the Stormers at the top of the South African group. The Stormers will be searching for five log points in the match against the Reds, as that result will keep the Lions at arm's length.

The Bulls will have a bye this coming week, which means the Sharks will have a chance to chip away at that deficit between positions three and four on the South African group log. However, a win against the Highlanders in New Zealand will be a tough ask.

At the other end of the scale, the Cheetahs have ended their losing streak at home and secured two straight wins against the Sunwolves. The Japanese franchise looks destined to prop up the Africa 1 conference log.

The Kings currently hold a slender one-point lead over the Sunwolves on the South African group log. They will face the Lions this coming Saturday, while the Sunwolves will host the Jaguares.

Both sets of basement dwellers will be desperate for any sort of return in round nine. The Kings will be looking to maintain their advantage over the Sunwolves, while the Japanese side will want to close the gap.

A win may be beyond both the Kings and Sunwolves. A losing bonus point, however, could prove invaluable to their long-term ambitions.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Jon Cardinelli