The Lions and Sharks’ erratic showings during the Super Rugby conference phase may see them travelling extensively in the playoffs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
South African rugby fans would do well to get behind the Highlanders as well as the Brumbies this week.
The Sharks need the Highlanders to beat the Rebels to keep their playoff hopes alive. If the Rebels win in Dunedin this Saturday, they will advance to the next round while the Sharks – whether they beat the Jaguares or not – will bow out of the race.
The Lions need the Brumbies to down the Waratahs for a different reason. The Waratahs are currently second in the overall standings on 44 points, while the Lions are on 41. A win for the Waratahs in Sydney would boost them beyond the Lions’ reach, regardless of what transpires between the Lions and Bulls in a later game played on Saturday.
The Crusaders have already locked down top spot, and will host a quarter-final next week. They will also host a semi-final and final if they keep on winning.
The team that finishes second will host a quarter-final, and a semi-final should they advance. Indeed, if the Crusaders are knocked out in the earlier rounds of the playoffs, the second-ranked team may well host the decider.
With that in mind, it’s plain to see what’s at stake this week for the Waratahs and the Lions.
At this stage, the Waratahs are well placed to realise their objective. The Lions will still have the opportunity to win the South African conference and secure a home quarter-final, though.
If they are forced to travel in subsequent games, the Lions may come to regret their erratic form across the conference phase.
The Lions lost by seven points or fewer in the home matches against the Blues and Crusaders and in the away games against the Reds and Sharks. They may come to lament those defeats if they don’t secure a home semi-final or, in the worst-case scenario, fail to win their conference.
Indeed, if the Lions lose to the Bulls and the Jaguares go on to claim a big win over the Sharks, the Argentinians will win the South African conference for the first time. That would be a disastrous outcome for South African rugby, as it would see the Lions travelling abroad for the quarter-finals and the Sharks failing to advance beyond the conference phase.
That said, the Lions look set to travel extensively whether they win the conference or not. If they beat the Bulls this weekend, they could host the Highlanders in the quarter-finals. A win in that match could earn them a semi-final date with the Waratahs in Sydney – assuming that the Waratahs win a likely quarter-final battle with the Jaguares, a side that has travelled a lot of late.
The Lions might fancy their chances against the Waratahs, a team they thumped 29-0 in Sydney earlier this season. They may be hard-pressed to beat a team like the Crusaders in the decider, though.
The Lions could host the final if they beat the Waratahs in their semi-final and if the Crusaders lose in their quarter-final or semi-final (possibly to the Hurricanes). In that scenario, however, the Lions will have to overcome travel fatigue when they journey back from Sydney to Johannesburg.
If a few results go their way from here on, however, the Lions could clinch the South African conference, finish in second place, and host all three playoffs. That all hinges on the Brumbies beating the Waratahs and the Lions beating the Bulls this week, though.
If the Lions win a home quarter-final and semi-final, and if the Hurricanes win their corresponding playoff matches – the latter in all likelihood against the mighty Crusaders – then the Lions could host the Hurricanes at Ellis Park in the decider.
What seems more likely is that the Lions will finish third in the standings and travel to Australasia for the semi-finals. If that comes to pass, the Lions will only have their regular-season form to blame.
The Sharks should have plenty of regrets, too. If that recent loss to the Stormers doesn’t cost them a playoff place, it may see them facing the Crusaders in Christchurch instead of the less imposing Waratahs in Sydney.
If only they had shown more composure in the away fixtures against the Lions, Brumbies, Hurricanes and Bulls earlier this season. If only they had beaten instead of drawn with the Waratahs at Kings Park, they may have been in a better position as far as the playoffs are concerned.
They can’t say that they haven’t had their chances. Indeed, the stars appeared to align for Robert du Preez’s side in the lead-up to the recent clash with the Stormers.
The Rebels and Jaguares lost their respective games in Brisbane and Pretoria. The Sharks simply needed to beat the struggling Stormers to surpass the Rebels in the standings and edge within two log points of the Jaguares.
Having beaten the Stormers, the Sharks may have gone into their final conference match against the Jaguares with momentum. They would have been favourites to win that game, surpass the Argentinians on the log, and finish seventh – instead of a likely eighth – in the standings.
If all that came to pass, and if the Waratahs went on to beat the Brumbies in Sydney, then the Sharks would have flown to New South Wales for a quarter-final.
The best the Sharks can hope for at this stage, however, is a ticket to Christchurch. They will need some luck, of course, and no small measure of mettle to earn passage to New Zealand’s south island.
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