Super Rugby

Try-hungry Lions leap clear in group

Cape Town - Three matches … 18 tries.

The Lions may have lost the likes of popular former head coach Johan Ackermann and his blind-side bruiser son Ruan to considerably chillier climes, but some things stay agreeably the same for them in 2018 thus far.

Psst, and possibly even have the potential to get better?

Under the new head tutelage of Swys du Bruin, the Johannesburg-based franchise, losing finalists in both 2016 and 2017, have made about as sprightly, and statement-making, a start to their roster as their fans could have wished for.

There are many rivers yet to cross, but the Lions have vaulted swiftly into a nine-point lead in the South African conference from the next-best Stormers after three outings each, and averaging a rosy six tries a match.

That comfortable situation follows their 49-35 bonus-point victory over Highveld neighbours the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday, a result that had been put to bed well before a spirited late surge by John Mitchell’s rebuilding outfit closed the gap on the scoreboard a fair bit.

By dotting down seven times (to four), the Lions emulated their tally against the Jaguares in the Big Smoke a week earlier, and their most “try shy” date has been the opener against the Sharks (also won, 26-19) when they pressed four.

What was especially impressive about their latest triumph, though, was how effectively they turned “industrial” at times against the traditionally no-nonsense Bulls, a policy that still produced a handful of rumbling, mauling tries amidst their more fluid moments.

Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx was often at the fulcrum of such drives, only confirming that he is one of the most powerful tight forwards on the planet at close quarters, whilst the experiment of switching tireless lock Franco Mostert to the cares of the No 7 jersey was also a success of note.

The platform laid in the engine room ensured that halfback combo Ross Cronje and Elton Jantjies were allowed the luxury of time and space to dictate matters behind the scrum.

If the Lions manage to merge their pack physicality and work ethic with slick backline activity all over again when the Blues come to Johannesburg next weekend, the reasonably limited New Zealanders (nought from two in their own conference) will be just another team who battle to live with them.

As for the Bulls, their intended revolution was never going to happen with the click of the fingers, and they demonstrated enough at times before a much-improved Loftus crowd of 21 000 to remind that a pronounced improvement on last season is well within their grasp even if title (or just conference-ruling) aspirations may have to wait another couple of years.

They never allowed their heads to sink to their chests in the high-paced derby, and will also rue the fact that a big turning point came when they had two players sin-binned simultaneously, which wreaked havoc with their shape at a time when they were hanging in well.

But to add to the productive day for the Lions, domestic rivals the Sharks - tipped by many in pre-season, including this writer, to run them close or even eclipse them in 2018 - again had a slip-up of sorts in an earlier Saturday slot.

Considering how woeful the Waratahs had been last year, the 24-24 draw with the visitors from Sydney must be considered “two points dropped” by Robert du Preez’s charges, even if the ‘Tahs competed with admirable zest in the gruelling KZN warmth.

It is now absolutely vital that they get a first win beneath their belts, at the third attempt, when they entertain the humble Sunwolves at Kings Park next Saturday – anything less would be a disaster, frankly.

The Sharks were a curious mix of the very good and very bad, producing bursts of lovely hand-to-hand play - impressive midfielder Lukhanyo Am crossed the whitewash twice - but also making too many elementary errors, sometimes under little or no pressure.

As for the Stormers, their Australasian tour woes only deepened as they were comfortably seen off by the Crusaders, the defending champions, and lost another of their senior Springbok locks to injury (muscleman Eben Etzebeth is still sidelined) when Pieter-Steph du Toit went off on the buggy with concussion and an apparent neck issue.

But they will be kicking themselves for the rugby version of a horrible oversleep: they went 26-0 down in a 19-minute whirlwind from the kick-off, and you are never going to claw back such a deficit in the Crusaders’ backyard.

In that time - commentator Tony Johnson called it “a bit of a clinic” from the ruthlessly capitalising ‘Saders - the Capetonians made a comedic catalogue of awful errors in various forms.

So it must have been almost irritating for their long-suffering fans that they actually grew quite nicely into the game after the early blitzkrieg; 45-28 as final score had once threatened to be immeasurably worse.

Nevertheless, would you bet on them, in the quick turnaround to Friday, to engineer a lone, tour-closing win against the Highlanders? No, probably not …

Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

Friday, March 9

Highlanders v Stormers - 08:35

Rebels v Brumbies - 10:45

Saturday, March 10

Hurricanes v Crusaders - 08:35

Reds v Bulls - 10:45

Sharks v Sunwolves - 15:05

Lions v Blues - 17:15

Jaguares v Waratahs - 23:40

Bye: Chiefs

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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