Warren Whiteley © Galo Images
Vodacom Super Rugby is heading into an exciting phase where the results of overseas games are suddenly starting to become more relevant to those who want to see the Emirates Lions go one better than last year by topping the overall log.
The high flying Crusaders currently enjoy a four-point lead at the top over the Lions after the same number of games, but with the Lions at home to the struggling Bulls while the Crusaders have a tough away derby against the Chiefs to contend with, this coming weekend could be the one where the pecking order changes.
The Lions’ quest for overall supremacy is however really the only point of interest when it comes to the log machinations. For while there may still be a mathematical chance for the chasing teams, the wins by the Southern Kings and the Highlanders at the weekend have served to obliterate any realistic prospect of the Lions or the DHL Stormers having their passage to the play-off phase impeded.
There are still four matches to go for them, but the Lions, after completing their clean sweep of Australian opposition with a hard-fought but deserved win over the Brumbies, have a 13-point lead in Africa Conference 2 over the Sharks. The Sharks have not made a habit of picking up try-scoring bonus points this season, so that effectively means the Lions would have to lose three of their remaining games and the Sharks win all of theirs for the status quo to change.
With the Highlanders edging out the Bulls in a tight game at Loftus, the Pretoria team are still languishing too far behind the Stormers. There are 11 points separating the sides, and the Bulls no longer have any games in hand. Although the top teams in Africa Conference 1 each still have five games to go, this weekend’s round, with the Bulls going to Johannesburg and the Stormers hosting the Blues in Cape Town, could wrap it up for the Cape side.
The main interest in the logs from a South African viewpoint definitely then focusses on whether the Lions can catch the Crusaders and take top spot on the overall combined log, thus ensuring a home run right through to the final once the play-offs arrive. It can happen, for although the Crusaders confirmed the impression that they are the best team in the competition with an excellent win over the Hurricanes in Christchurch at the weekend, they have to travel to Wellington for the return fixture after the break.
Indeed, it is looking increasingly likely that Super Rugby could be set for a thrilling and deciding final weekend of the league phase of competition, as the Lions have to travel to Durban to play their final game on the same day as the Crusaders go to Wellington. If the current four-point lead enjoyed by the Crusaders is maintained, or the Crusaders drop a game and they get to that stage with nothing between them, it will make it very interesting.
The Lions shouldn’t drop a game before then, and the pressure could be greater on the Crusaders given that, in addition to this weekend’s tough away encounter against the Chiefs, they also have a south island derby against the unpredictable Highlanders to look forward to.
The Lions should beat the Bulls and it would take a Herculean effort from the Kings to retain their current momentum through an away fixture against the Lions in the Sunday game that is scheduled for the last round before the June break. When the Lions come back from their break they host the Sunwolves, and then they have a bye – as do the Sharks – before they go to Durban.
What could be in the Lions’ favour is the potentially debilitating effect on the Crusaders of the All Blacks’ series against the British and Irish Lions. Several Crusaders players should be involved in that, and when they come back from that series they go straight into the final league game against the Hurricanes.
The Sharks may have felt a lot better when they woke up on Sunday morning than they did on Saturday night immediately after their loss to the Kings. They long ago gave up any chance of catching the Lions, and for them the quest is to finish as the next best South African team on the combined log, thus entering the play-offs as a wild card.
Their main opposition, in fact their only opposition, in that quest is the Rebels, who were upset by the Western Force in Buenos Aires on Saturday night and are therefore still nine points behind the Sharks. Had they won, the Sharks’ advantage on them could have been cut to as little as four points, which would have made it tricky.
So the Sharks’ loss in a derby at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium that delivered on all expectations, including a frenetic tempo and a thrilling finish, hasn’t cost them much. They will though have to tread warily when they go to another potentially problematic venue this coming weekend – the Sunwolves’ home ground in Singapore.
The Kings’ win delivered a timely message to South African rugby about what good coaching, continuity in selection and the creation of a committed team culture can do for a team. Last year coach Deon Davids mixed and matched his selections on an almost weekly basis but this season the core of the starting team has stayed together from the beginning and it has paid off.
Like the Lions, the Kings are also showing the importance of a good defensive system and a strong scrum. Defence was a massive problem for the Kings for most of the first part of the season but in the last two games they have conceded just two tries while scoring 10. A couple of weeks ago Davids was lamenting problems with his pack’s performance in the tight phases, but on Saturday the Kings scrum repeatedly hurt the highly rated Sharks unit and it played a big part in their win.
Blues 50 Toyota Cheetahs 32
Brumbies 6 Emirates Lions 13
Crusaders 20 Hurricanes 12
Rebels 24 Reds 29
Vodacom Bulls 10 Highlanders 17