Five lessons from the past weekend's Super Rugby matches, according to CRAIG LEWIS.
The Lions must be regarded as strong Super Rugby title contenders
When the Lions headed into the June break, they did so on the back of a brilliant 56-20 win over the Bulls. On Saturday, the Johannesburg-based side picked up exactly where they left off as they delivered another commanding performance, particularly in the first half, to cruise past the Sharks 37-10. It’s a result that has secured a home quarter-final for the Lions, and increasing consideration has to go towards considering this team as undeniable title contenders. They’ve been far and away South Africa’s best side all season, and on Saturday they sent another reminder that they have all the makings of a champion team.
Jaco Kriel is a superb captaincy replacement for Warren Whiteley
There’s no doubt that the Lions are going to miss the presence of Whiteley during the business end of Super Rugby, with the regular skipper having been ruled out of action for several weeks due to a shoulder injury sustained while with the Boks. Whiteley is an inspirational figure both on and off the field, but last year the Lions benefited from Kriel’s ability to take over the leadership reins during the Currie Cup, which memorably saw the Johannesburg-based side clinch the title after an undefeated season. Kriel undoubtedly benefited from the experience, and he will now need to continue leading from the front as the Lions go in search of what would be a historic Super Rugby success.
The Stormers’ ambitious lineout contesting philosophy continues to reap rewards
On a number of occasions this season, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck has spoken of the Cape-based team’s desire to implement a strong contest strategy at lineout time. With incumbent Springbok locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth at his disposal, they’ve identified an area of strength and continued to reap the benefits. Etzebeth has particularly emerged as a multi-dimensional second rower who reads the game impressively at the lineouts, while Du Toit manages that set piece superbly. On Saturday, Etzebeth’s ability to steal three balls off the Rebels in Melbourne played a key part in an emphatic result that has effectively secured a home quarter-final for the Stormers.
The Bulls’ season has horribly imploded
After losing their opening game against the Stormers, the Bulls went unbeaten in their next seven matches and looked well on track to secure a playoff place. However, injuries have begun to take their toll, while there have been clear teething problems as they attempt to adopt a more ambitious style of play. Their meek defeat to the Jaguares on Saturday has now seen them lose four of their last five games, and they look in real danger of failing to progress to the quarter-finals. The Sharks continue to hang on to the wildcard-qualifying berth with a three-point lead over the Bulls, and suddenly the Pretoria-based side will be wondering where it’s all gone wrong.
The Sharks can’t afford to slip up again in the home stretch
Although the Sharks’ loss to the Lions on Saturday was far from unexpected, they were fortunate that later in the day the Bulls failed to take advantage of the opportunity to reclaim the wildcard-qualifying place as they also suffered a defeat. As a result, the Sharks have been able to hang on to a three-point lead over the Bulls as the competition heads into the final two weeks of the conference stage. The Sharks will benefit from the fact that they will play their last two games at home, and should back themselves to overcome the Cheetahs and Sunwolves. Interestingly, it’s the same two sides that the Bulls will play over the final two weeks of action, but the Sharks will be buoyed by the knowledge that they still have control over their own destiny. However, there is no more room for any further slip-ups.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images