What we’ve learned

Five lessons from the past weekend's Super Rugby matches, according to CRAIG LEWIS.

The Lions’ gamble didn’t pay off
When coach Johan Ackermann opted to take a second-string side to Argentina for the Lions’ final conference clash, while saving his first-choice players from the travel effects, they were always expected to battle against the Jaguares. This selection decision was always going to be a difficult one that has undoubtedly divided opinion. As it turned out, although the weakened Lions battled gallantly and led by as much as 10 points early in the second half, they ultimately faded and failed to come away with even a losing bonus point that could have seen them finish top in the overall standings. Of course, it’s easier to judge in hindsight, but right from the outset it seemed that the Lions erred in making such wholesale changes and not at least taking some of their more experienced players, who could have even provided the necessary impact off the bench. Ultimately, the Lions players may be better off for the break they’ve had this past week, but they will now have to face the Crusaders in the quarter-finals, a side that has beaten them already in Johannesburg this season. The Lions should be hailed for an outstanding season, but it is disappointing that they weren’t able to clinch the overall top spot, which would have been fully deserving.

The Stormers have momentum going into the playoffs
The Stormers have benefited from a dream draw this year and were always expected to reach the playoffs as the winner of the Africa 1 conference. In the end, they’ve done it in some style, finishing nine points ahead of the Bulls. Although it’s clear that they remain a team in transition under coach Robbie Fleck, it can’t be overlooked that they have secured bonus-point wins in their last three matches ahead of the playoffs, and it should provide them with the sort of confidence and winning momentum that every side wants heading into the knockout stage. The Stormers weren’t entirely convincing against the Kings on Saturday, but they were always in control of the contest, and will now turn their attention to a very different beast in the form of the high-flying Chiefs. It’s going to be a challenge for them to take a considerable step up against such formidable Kiwi opponents, but they do have some momentum and home-ground advantage in their favour. They couldn’t really ask for much more than that.

The Sharks will miss Pat Lambie
It’s been another unfortunate injury-disrupted season for Lambie, who missed the first half of the season with a shoulder injury, while a concussion has ruled him out of the last three games of Super Rugby. As a result, he has fallen one game short of playing in the necessary four regular season matches to be eligible for the playoffs. It’s a ruling that will infuriate Sharks fans considering that Lambie is the team’s designated skipper and has been on their books for almost a decade. Unless common sense prevails, Lambie will miss out on the playoffs in what is a considerable blow for the Sharks. Joe Pietersen and then Garth April have filled in manfully while Lambie has been out, but again, the latter’s defensive frailties were in evidence against the Sunwolves (he missed three tackles). Beyond that, though, it’s really Lambie’s experience, leadership and all-round game management that will be sorely missed.

The Bulls need a tighthead prop
The scrums were a mess during Saturday’s clash between the Bulls and Cheetahs, with both sides conceding a number of penalties. Bulls tighthead prop Marcel van der Merwe particularly struggled against opposite number Charl Marais, and conceded three scrum penalties before being replaced early in the second half by Werner Kruger. Although it didn’t alter the final outcome, with the Bulls still securing a comfortable 43-17 victory, their scrums-won percentage sat at a lowly 66.7%, which has been a problematic area for the Pretoria-based side all season. According to SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, their scrum success this season has been just 83% (the third worst), while Van der Merwe has conceded the most penalties of any player in the competition (26). And with Kruger heading off to join Welsh side the Scarlets, it does again highlight the need for the Bulls to boost their stocks at tighthead prop.

New Zealand teams remain a cut above the rest
The highlight of the weekend’s action was undoubtedly the New Zealand derby double-header on Saturday, with the Crusaders taking on the Hurricanes, while the Chiefs and Highlanders battled it out in Dunedin. Both matches produced some incredible rugby and scintillating tries, with the Canes ultimately clinching a highly impressive 35-10 win over the Saders, while the Highlanders held off the Chiefs in surely one of the games of the season in terms of quality. In another reminder of the strength of the New Zealand conference, just three points separated the top four sides heading into the final weekend of action, and ultimately the Canes jumped from fourth to first, while the Landers leapfrogged their way into second spot. All four sides have qualified for the playoffs, while the lowest seeded team (the Crusaders) still finished with seven points more than the Australian conference winners, the Brumbies. Again, these top Kiwi sides have set the competition alight, and deserve plenty of plaudits.

Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP Photo

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Craig Lewis