Cape Town - The next four weekends of Super Rugby may starkly confirm what some already suspect: that the South African challenge for the playoffs will be entirely in the hands of the two coastal franchises, with the Gauteng duo already dangerously close to spent forces by then.
Why the next four rounds?
For one thing, it is at that point that a first domestic side - the Sharks - will have reached their midway mark (8/16) in the ordinary-season roster ... just ahead of their first, presumably hugely welcome bye after eight consecutive weeks of competitive action.
But that is also the period in which the once assertive Lions, currently fourth in the SA conference (five points from three matches) will complete their main overseas tour, which begins against the Waratahs in Sydney on Friday (10:15 SA time).
From there, it is onward to clashes for the red-and-whites against the Rebels, Blues and Highlanders in that order.
In the same period, the already badly ailing Bulls (three losses and a solitary log point, to be rooted to the bottom of the conference) will have two further cracks at Loftus at breaking their duck, against the Jaguares and Highlanders respectively, before playing their first two tour fixtures across the Indian Ocean - the Australian leg against the Reds and Waratahs.
From what we have seen in early combat, both the Lions and Bulls could find the going particularly tough abroad, with wins looking well less than guaranteed in frankly any tour fixture.
So, against that backdrop, just what might the conference look like toward the end of March?
Already off to promising starts, both the Stormers - overall competition leaders with a 4/4 record at present – and Sharks have a pretty good chance of only expanding their current superiority over the two SA rival outfits based at high altitude.
John Dobson’s charges must be favoured to make it five out of five against the Blues at Newlands on Saturday, despite the Aucklanders, so often the most vulnerable New Zealand team, beginning their mini-safari here on a relative high by snatching the spoils against the Bulls at the death in Pretoria last Saturday.
The Sharks, meanwhile, are bracing for their final tour fixture already mindful that two wins has been a healthy return: if they come home with a three-from-four record (and they have a puncher’s chance, at very least, against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday?) their position for the remainder of ordinary season will have an even more promising glow to it.
By contrast, if the presently impotent-looking Bulls come a cropper for a fourth game in a row against the conference mid-table Jaguares at Loftus on Saturday, it will become increasingly difficult to envisage them as being capable of rallying for a finals series berth, despite the generous time still ahead.
Maybe the Lions, then, represent the best chance from here of the Highveld maintaining some sense of dignity and optimism, even if their best tour scenario could quite feasibly be one win, with the addition of two or three bonus points if possible. (They have only managed one tour win in each of the last two treks to Australasia, and with stronger groups of players.)
The one positive on paper about their 2020 tour itinerary is that they dodge powerful sides like the defending champion Crusaders, or the reasonably runaway Aussie group leaders at this point, the Brumbies.
Hitting the ground running, too, would be a treasured characteristic by Ivan van Rooyen’s charges as first opponents the Waratahs are at sixes and sevens: wooden-spoonists overall, with reverses to the Rebels, Blues and Crusaders and no log points to show yet.
Recent history also provides some encouragement to the Lions: when they last played the ‘Tahs away, also in game one of an Australasian tour two years ago, the Jo’burgers earned a famous 29-0 triumph.
But in a sign of how considerably less experienced their 2020 squad is, only one of the four tries that day was dotted by a currently active Lions player: marauding loose forward Marnus Schoeman.
The others came from Madosh Tambwe (now Sharks), Harold Vorster (Panasonic Wild Knights) and Kwagga Smith (Yamaha Jubilo, although being linked with a possible return).
Lions’ results from main overseas tour, last four seasons:
2019 ... 1/3: Brumbies 31 Lions 20, Chiefs 17 Lions 23, Crusaders 36 Lions 10
2018 ... 1/4: Waratahs 0 Lions 29, Reds 27 Lions 22, Hurricanes 28 Lions 19, Highlanders 39 Lions 27
2017 ... 3/3: Force 15 Lions 24, Rebels 10 Lions 47, Brumbies 6 Lions 13
2016 ... 2/3: Sunwolves 13 Lions 26, Chiefs 32 Lions 36, Highlanders 34 Lions 15
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