Cape Town – Two priceless derby victories in a row at a time when they were potentially at their most vulnerable have increased the likelihood that the still-unbeaten Crusaders will march all the way to a home final in Super Rugby 2017.
Coming off their tour to South Africa, with its customary time-zone drawbacks, successive games straight afterwards against the Hurricanes, last year’s champions, and the Chiefs in neutral Suva looked like their most perilous obstacles of the season on paper.
But the seven-time champions have now banked victories in both all-NZ affairs, a happy situation for them culminating in Friday’s hard-earned 31-24 outcome (from a half-time deficit) against the Mooloo Men before a lively Fijian crowd.
They have been major statements of intent -- as if we even needed to see them -- as the ‘Saders, now 12 from 12 in ordinary season, hungrily seek their first title since 2008.
A Chiefs victory would have been infinitely more convenient at this point for the ambitious Lions, wanting to go one better than last season’s losing finalists status in Wellington and give departing coach Johan Ackermann the send-off he desires.
It would have been the tangible foot in the door the Johannesburg-based side need in the quest to tee up a home showpiece – bearing in mind that no team has yet been able to cross the Indian Ocean to win a final in the competition.
Instead the Crusaders, even if it was the second match in a row where they could not add the bonus-point cherry for three-try-or-more superiority, cranked their log tally up to 54 points from a dozen fixtures.
Ahead of them now lie only remaining obligations against the Rebels (away), Highlanders (home) and Hurricanes (away); if they win all three they simply will not be caught by anyone as they would advance to a minimum of 66 points – and that assumes no further bonus points, which is fairly unlikely.
The very most points, requiring full-house wins each time, that the Lions (46 points, 11 games thus far) can finish on is also 66; they have four matches remaining, including Saturday’s evening’s home derby against the Bulls. Then come Kings (home), Sunwolves (home) and Sharks (away).
The Crusaders have widening superiority in points differential terms (plus-225, versus plus-137) and of course the Lions sport that one loss blemish, against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The Lions have to cling to now-receding hopes that they keep up their own recent winning habit and the ‘Saders do still slip on a banana peel somewhere to create a possible haul-in opportunity.
Beating the out-of-form Bulls with a bonus point in tow on Saturday would be a good way to keep some semblance of pressure on the Crusaders from Warren Whiteley and company.
Another reason for the Lions to retain current standards is the possibility that the Crusaders waste their No 1-seeding, if they get it, by crashing ahead of the final in the knockout phase – something that cannot be discounted.
That might yet open a different route for the Lions to a Highveld-staged final on August 5.
South Africa last hosted the showpiece back in 2010, when the Bulls won the last of their three titles, beating the Stormers 25-17 at Orlando Stadium in Soweto.
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