Playoffs in balance for tired, hurt Lions
As the June international window closes, the Super Rugby season reopens. After four weeks off, the contenders now need to refocus with three log games left prior to the quarterfinals. In Australasia, it is almost a done deal that four New Zealand teams and one Australian team will progress. In South Africa, four local sides are fighting for three places.
The break came at exactly the wrong time for the Lions, who had demolished the Bulls, Jaguares and Blues in successive weekends. It gave the national coach a chance to recognise their form players, but Lions coach Johan Ackermann will rue the fact that he has now lost his captain for the rest of the tournament.
Warren Whiteley was the glue that held this Lions team together through thick and thin over the past three years. The shoulder injury he sustained in the last Test against Ireland is therefore a mortal blow to the Lions’ campaign.
The captain’s armband will pass to the highly capable Jaco Kriel, but the absence of the tackling machine beneath the familiar red headgear will be sorely missed.
In the two African conferences the Cheetahs, Jaguares, Kings and Sunwolves are all out of the running. Consequently, the next three weeks becomes a straight shootout between the Lions, Stormers, Sharks and Bulls for quarterfinal qualification.
The smart money is on the Bulls to miss out, as they have fewer log points than the other three and have been dealt a handful of cruel injury blows.
Springbok quartet Trevor Nyakane, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson and Deon Stegmann are all out of this week’s trip to Argentina, along with highly promising youngsters RG Snyman and Warrick Gelant. Also missing is the new Springbok captain, Adriaan Strauss, who is being rested.
In the Bulls’ favour, however, is that their two final games are against the Sunwolves and the Cheetahs. With that in mind, it is up to the other three sides to keep winning.
The Stormers have a problematic trip to Melbourne to take on the Rebels. Problematic because the Rebels are the least predictable of all the Australian franchises, having won six and lost six of their games this year. Significantly, however, four of those wins have been against other Australian teams, whereas the remaining ones were against the underperforming Sunwolves and Cheetahs.
The Stormers are perhaps one team that did not mind taking a month off to reassess, for after a strong start to the season they ran into trouble in May, losing games against the Bulls and Waratahs and scraping a draw against the Sunwolves. A narrow win in their last game against the Cheetahs at Newlands failed to paper over the cracks that had appeared.
One log point divides the Stormers from the Sharks, and the Bulls can only hope that both lose a game or two in the run-in. After a mid-season stutter the Sharks found their game in May, with three successive wins against the Hurricanes, Jaguares and Kings. They should win their last two encounters against the Cheetahs and the Sunwolves in Durban, so this week’s encounter with the Lions could be a season-defining one.
In the Sharks’s favour is the fact that the key Lions players have had no rest owing to international commitments. It will be hard for the likes of Faf de Klerk, Lionel Mapoe and Ruan Combrinck to come back down to earth after their roles in the three-Test series against Ireland. The psychological factor combined with the absence of Whiteley means that the Sharks have a better than even chance of causing an upset.
A Lions defeat would open up the possibility of a home quarterfinal for one of the chasing teams. That’s because, although the Lions have a guaranteed win against the Kings next week, they have to travel to Buenos Aires for their final fixture against the Jaguares, a potential banana skin if ever there was one.
In a worst-case scenario for the Johannesburg franchise, they might finish on 47 log points and be passed by both the Stormers and the Sharks, but almost certainly not by the Bulls. That would mean home quarterfinals in Cape Town and Durban and an away fixture for the Lions determined by overall log standings.
The likelihood, however, is that the Lions will simply get back on the bus and carry all before them, entering the playoff phases with a full head of steam.
The fact of the matter is that they are the only team likely to cause sleepless nights for the four New Zealand franchises, from whom this year’s champion is likely to emerge. That may seem unduly gloomy, but the recently concluded Test series against northern hemisphere opposition – England, Ireland and Wales – tended to confirm what we already know.
That is: Australian rugby is in crisis and, were it not for the much-criticised new format, would not have a single team in the playoffs. South African rugby is battling to cope with a salary-induced player exodus and relies on the inspirational Lions to be competitive. New Zealand has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of quality players and an understanding of the way the game should be played that exists in a different dimension from other nations.