Lions take the lead

The Lions have taken a big step towards securing a home playoff. The Sharks may battle to make the knockout stage from here. JON CARDINELLI reports.

The Lions have every reason to celebrate their victory at Kings Park. While they failed to secure a bonus point at the death, they did enough to claim a win that propels them two points clear of the Sharks at the top of the Africa 2 conference.

In other matches featuring South African sides, the Stormers banked a bonus-point victory in their fixture against the Sunwolves, while the Bulls did likewise in the game against the Kings in Port Elizabeth.

The Stormers still enjoy a four-point lead over the Bulls at the top of the Africa 1 conference. However, the results in Durban and Port Elizabeth now see the Bulls in third position on the South African group log. The Pretoria-based side is now in a position to qualify for the playoffs, while the Sharks are on the outer.

It won’t get any easier for Gary Gold’s team over the next five weeks. They will spend the next three weeks in New Zealand, playing the resurgent Blues, the trendsetting Chiefs, and the 2015 champions, the Highlanders. Thereafter, they will face the Hurricanes in Durban before heading to Argentina to front the Jaguares.

The loss to the Lions in Durban this past Saturday has placed them in a difficult position. They’re now under pressure to secure wins in New Zealand.

That said, as long as the Jaguares keep losing, the Sharks will retain some hope. The Jaguares went into this competition as a contender to top the Africa 2 conference. After winning their first match, they've lost the subsequent five games in a row.

The progress of the teams in Africa 1 will be monitored closely by the Sharks. The Stormers are well placed in the sense that they won’t tour Australia until July. The Bulls, on the other hand, will face the Reds in the coming week before heading to Australia for a tough three-week tour. No doubt the Sharks will be hoping that the Brumbies and Waratahs stop the Bulls from adding to their tally.

In the short term, there is an opportunity for the Bulls to take the lead at the top of the Africa 1 conference. For that to happen, the Bulls need to claim a bonus-point win against the Reds at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday. They will also need the Lions to beat the Stormers by more than seven points at Ellis Park.

The Sharks will be hoping for the opposite. Gold’s men will need to win in Auckland on Saturday. Thereafter, the Stormers could do the Sharks a favour by beating the Lions by more than seven points. That result would see the Sharks, against the odds, leading the Africa 2 conference after eight rounds.

The Kings and the Cheetahs will have more modest ambitions. The Sunwolves rested their star players in Cape Town, but should deploy a full-strength combination against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this Friday. They will be searching for their first win in the competition, one that elevates them above the Kings on the South African group log.

Photo: Muzi Ntombela/Backpagepix

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