The Lions will have plenty to prove when they host the Crusaders in a quarter-final at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Lions went down 34-22 to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires. Their inability to obtain as much as a losing bonus point has seen them slipping from first to second in the overall standings.
This result will have no bearing on their right to host a quarter-final, and possibly even a semi-final. It may, however, cost them home advantage in the final. If both the Hurricanes and the Lions advance to the decider, the game will be staged in Wellington, New Zealand.
Not that the Lions should be too concerned with that scenario at this point. The result in Buenos Aires as well as their second-place finish in the standings means they will play the Crusaders rather than the Sharks in the quarter-finals.
The Lions deserve praise for their attitude and performances this season. From a South African point of view, they’ve beat the odds to finish higher than the likes of the Stormers and Bulls, who avoided the stronger New Zealand teams in the conference stage thanks to the absurd new format.
This Lions team is already the most successful in history. Not since the inception of the tournament in 1996 has a Lions team qualified for the playoffs.
Ackermann and his charges will have grander ambitions. They will be aiming for a maiden title, and it’s fair to say they are South Africa’s best bet for silverware in the playoffs.
Their first hurdle in the form of the Crusaders is a substantial one. The Cantabrians are coming off a loss to the Hurricanes, and will be forced to travel to South Africa this week. They won’t fear a trip to Ellis Park, though, as they beat the Lions 43-37 at this venue earlier this season.
Four New Zealand sides have qualified for the playoffs. Three of those teams (Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes) beat the Lions in the regular season. The Johannesburg-based side may need to slay at least two of those teams over the next three weeks in order to claim the title.
As the lowest-seeded wildcard qualifier, the Sharks face the toughest road to the final. Indeed, Gary Gold’s side may have preferred a quarter-final against the Lions, even though Ackermann’s side won the two regular season derbies by 15 and 27 points respectively. They would have wanted to play the knockout match in South Africa rather than travel to Wellington.
What should we expect from the Stormers? They’ve qualified as many predicted they would after being placed in the weaker Africa 1 conference (where teams did not compete against the New Zealand franchises).
The Cape side has recorded some big wins over the past three weeks, but they will face very different opponents in the form of the Chiefs this coming Saturday. Nothing they've faced this season would have prepared them for a showdown against a Kiwi team in a playoff. Their rotten record in knockout matches, even those played at Newlands, is well documented. Perhaps we shouldn't expect too much.
The Highlanders should be too good for the Brumbies, even though the latter side will host that quarter-final in Canberra. The Australian conference has been particularly weak in 2016.
While the Bulls missed out on playoff qualification by a single log point, it would be a stretch to suggest they deserve to feature in the post-season. It does come as a surprise, though, to see the Sharks qualifying ahead of them. The Bulls were handed a more favourable draw than the Sharks, and had the benefit of competing against the Australians rather than the trend-setting New Zealanders during the conference stage.
The Cheetahs delivered another series of mediocre and rudderless performances. The Kings battled in their comeback season, losing 13 of their 15 matches and conceding a competition-worst 684 points. The only positive for the Eastern Cape side is that they finished one place ahead of the Sunwolves, the new Japanese franchise, at the foot of the table.
Super Rugby quarter-finals:
22 July: Brumbies vs Highlanders (12:00)
23 July: Hurricanes vs Sharks (09:35)
23 July: Stormers vs Chiefs (16:30)
23 July: Lions vs Crusaders (19:00)
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images