A chance for Lions

2015-04-29 00:00

CAPE TOWN — They are much ­admired this season by South African neutrals, but are the Lions’ finals series aspirations in Super Rugby 2015 really taken seriously by those celebrating their unanticipated endurance?

Let me suggest this much: if they upset the Bulls in Saturday’s main domestic feature at Loftus, it should be enough to finally do the trick if that hasn’t occurred already.

Certainly it will go a long way to banishing any lingering doubts (unscientific, and pure gut feel) in my own mind about their ability to last the pace and have a real sniff at qualifying for the playoffs for the first time.

There is also the chance that, if they do manage to complete a season “double” over the Bulls — memories of their last-gasp 22-18 triumph in Johannesburg on April 4 still fresh in the minds of many — they might do what the Stormers managed in the latest round, and leapfrog the men from Pretoria in the conference.

If that sounds particularly unpalatable to the Bulls faithful, no doubt frustrated that their favourites so nearly did enough to win at Newlands, it is worth pointing out that the home side, with pack mastermind Victor Matfield seemingly set to make a timely return, will remain smarter money to bag this one.

The Bulls know this much: defeat is just not an option in what is their second-last home fixture and the “curtain-raiser” (even though they have a bye the next weekend) to their ever-challenging overseas leg.

Nevertheless, the Lions are on a magnificent, five-game winning roll and much stranger things have already happened competition-wide this season than Warren Whiteley’s spirited troops successfully raiding their neighbouring city on Saturday night.

Should they do the business and end up a whisker in front or perhaps level-pegging with the Bulls on log points after 11 games each, the Lions would embark on a five-game run-in involving a favourable 3-2 split between home and away matches (and all on SA soil anyway). The Bulls would be facing a greatly less favourable 1-4 situation.

One small thing to the Bulls’ advantage, should the cross-Jukskei rivalry for a place in the last six happen to go down to the very last day of ordinary season, is that their last obligation is back at home to the Cheetahs, whereas the Lions will be the only team of the entire 15 with an undesirable final-round bye — that wouldn’t have been so bad in the daft days of four guaranteed points on such occasions!

But let’s not lose sight of another thing: even if the Lions were gradually to fade from contention themselves, most of their remaining matches are ones that could affect either qualification itself or eventual positioning within the finals series for compatriots the Stormers and Bulls.

Their three games left at Emirates Airline Park are all against overseas sides scrapping hard themselves to make the cut for the knockout phase — the Highlanders, Brumbies and defending champions the Waratahs.

Hopefully the Lions will be jostling valiantly right to the finish. Considering their unity and great energy up to this point, it would be a surprise if that was not the case, wouldn’t it?

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