Cape Town – The Lions, although the table doesn’t yet reflect it, are nudging nearer to so-important top finish overall in Super Rugby ordinary season.
It is the task that just proved too much for them last season, when they ended up playing – and losing – the final in Wellington, but their bid to tee up a possible Johannesburg showpiece in 2017 stays rosily enough on course after round 11 at the weekend.
For starters, they did the key business themselves of beating the Rebels with a bonus point to make it 10 points from 10 thus far on their Australian tour, with only the Brumbies left to play in Canberra on Friday (11:45 SA time).
It is arguably their toughest tour assignment – “arguably” because the entire Aussie conference is so abject this year – but they are currently showing the correct levels of urgency and passion to be branded well “on” for a clean sweep of the visit Down Under.
If the Lions were to win again with a bonus point, there is a chance they will overhaul the front-running Crusaders as swiftly as the coming weekend, when the unbeaten, seven-time champions tackle compatriots the Hurricanes in an absolute cracker for all rugby enthusiasts.
It is the Crusaders’ home game on Saturday (09:35 SA time) but bear in mind that they will just have crossed the Indian Ocean from South Africa, whereas the ‘Canes come off a home disposal by 19 points of the Stormers.
Should the Lions (42 points) have earned another full house and the Hurricanes win the derby by more than seven points, Johan Ackermann’s charges would end round 12 in pole position competition-wide, as their deficit on the Crusaders (46) is currently four points.
A particularly tense scrap for overall supremacy is likely over the remaining few rounds of pre-knockout play, given that it certainly isn’t just the ‘Saders and Lions vying for the right.
Indeed, there is a case for saying the best outcome in Saturday’s big NZ derby from a Lions perspective might be a dour (though sides from those shores seldom do dour) 12-12 kind of stalemate with two log points each.
That is because the Hurricanes, the 2016 title winners, are right in the picture for top spot themselves – they have 38 points from nine matches, which is one game fewer than either of the other two.
Hardly aiding the logjam is that the Chiefs – bye immediately ahead -- are also right at the races, with the same tally of points as the Lions after as many matches, albeit with an inferior “for and against” record.
But as traditionally happens toward the business end of ordinary season, a return to a bigger emphasis on domestic derbies looms large – naturally meaning that a few currently rampant NZ teams, often feasting on flimsier opponents from outside that country, are about to cease having that luxury.
There is an impressive list of all-NZ fixtures still to be played, meaning sacrifices in the results column almost certainly will occur at some point(s) for the various high-quality contenders in that conference.
This is where the Lions, quite obviously revelling in a season where they don’t have to play New Zealand franchises ahead of the knockouts, could be major beneficiaries if they keep on winning themselves (they have won all of their last seven matches).
Put it this way … examine the run-ins of the four major table-top contenders listed below, and gauge which outfit you think is best poised to end atop the pile; my own money is just about on the Lions, even if so many twists and turns remain possible:
Crusaders (played 10, 46 points): Hurricanes (h), Chiefs (a), Rebels (a), Highlanders (h), Hurricanes (a)
Lions (played 10, 42 points): Brumbies (a), Bulls (h), Kings (h), Sunwolves (h), Sharks (a)
Chiefs (played 10, 42 points): Crusaders (h), Blues (a), Waratahs (h), Hurricanes (a), Brumbies (h)
Hurricanes (played 9, 38 points): Crusaders (a), Cheetahs (h), Bulls (a), Force (a), Chiefs (h), Crusaders (h)
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