Johannesburg - It wasn’t a good weekend for South Africa in Super Rugby in the sense that the one team challenging for a playoff place that played in the penultimate round lost, but the top local side didn’t need to play in order to go into the final week in a much stronger position.
Not that it is all completely hunky dory for Swys de Bruin and his Lions team, who would have enjoyed watching their arch-rivals from across the Jukskei River dent the Jaguares’ right to go into the final round this week feeling that their destiny is in their hands, according to the supersport.com website.
The Jaguares not only have to beat the Sharks, they also need to rely on the Bulls to continue the momentum picked up at Loftus by knocking over the Lions when they travel up the M1 for their final fixture of the season.
But the Lions, while pleased to have their destiny back in their own hands, should have ended the weekend round of matches, which they would have watched on television, kicking themselves for the poor decisions that cost them in the previous match against the Sharks. Had they won that game, the Johannesburg based team would be poised to finish second on the overall log, meaning that they would have had the benefit of home ground advantage, plus of course that telling altitude boost, in both a quarter-final and semi-final.
As it stands though the Lions are third, three points behind the Waratahs, who leapfrogged them at the weekend courtesy of a massive win over the Sunwolves who played a big part of the game with 14 men. That means that the Lions, should the current order stay the same after the final round, would have to hit the road after hosting a quarter-final.
What needs to happen for that scenario to change, and for the Lions to finish second, is that they have to beat the Bulls at Ellis Park while banking on the Waratahs losing to the Brumbies. The second part of that Lions wish-list will be harder to achieve, as the Waratahs will be hosting the Brumbies in Sydney, and the Brumbies will have had their determination dented by the narrow defeat to the Chiefs at the weekend that has cost them any chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
Compared to where they started the weekend, however, it is looking a lot rosier for the Lions, and they also must know deep down that while they lost in Durban the last time they played, that game did represent a potential turning point for them. The stop start nature of modern rugby enabled the Sharks to survive even though they were dominated for most of the game, with the return of kingpins Malcolm Marx and regular skipper Warren Whiteley having the desired effect. It was just their poor decision not to kick for posts and put the Sharks away that cost them.
It is a long time since the Lions forwards have looked as potent as they did at Kings Park, and having the likes of Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan available again at the back doesn’t hurt their Super Rugby hopes either.
The Lions did send out a warning in Durban to future opponents that they could be getting their mojo back with the return of their important, talismanic personnel, and if they can get it together and build some momentum against the Bulls and continue it into a home quarter-final, their chances of winning the competition should not be written off. They’ll have two games after that, and as they know now that those last two knock-out fixtures are likely to be overseas, they can prepare as if they are going on tour.
Of course, there isn’t any history of a South African team going to New Zealand to win a playoff game, and with the Crusaders still on what looks like an inexorable march to a second successive title, and the Hurricanes showing how much star players can mean to a team by regaining their form with the return of Beauden Barrett, it won’t be easy.
It's a more realistic scenario than the one faced by the Sharks. The Sharks coaches are confident that their team has the ability to match it with the New Zealand teams, so if they do make it to the quarter-finals, they won’t be completely daunted.
Again though history reflects that winning a playoff game in New Zealand is not something that has ever happened before, plus the Sharks are going to be hard pressed to beat the Jaguares, which they need to do if they want to qualify. The Jaguares fell victim to a stunning comeback from the Bulls at Loftus, but they were good in the first quarter and well though the Bulls played, their coach John Mitchell would probably admit that he has become quite canny in using altitude as his ally.
The Sharks won’t have that advantage at sea level, plus the Jaguares will be more acclimatised and recovered from their long flight from Argentina by then. They have something to play for, as do the Sharks, though the latter part of that depends on what happens between the Highlanders and the Rebels earlier in Saturday’s play. Should the Rebels somehow shock the Highlanders in their own back-yard, there will be nothing riding on it for the Sharks.
Remaining fixtures and what the teams need to do (home teams first):
Highlanders v Rebels (If Rebels win they qualify for the playoffs)
Waratahs v Brumbies (Waratahs win would make sure of second placed overall finish)
Lions v Bulls (Lions win will win the conference, second place overall theirs if Waratahs lose)
Sharks v Jaguares (Sharks make it if they win and Rebels lose, Jaguares top if they win and Lions lose)
Other fixtures final weekend
Chiefs v Hurricanes (both teams qualified for playoffs already)
Reds v Sunwolves (nothing on the game between two cellar dwellers)
Crusaders v Blues (Crusaders already assured of top, nothing on the game)