There’ll be a sense of distorted déjà vu as Super Rugby’s playoffs get underway this weekend. For the third straight year, the Lions stand as South Africa’s only realistic hope — the only side that might not spontaneously crumble under the weight of Kiwi might.
Yet the Johan Ackermann era is over. Specks of his legacy remain but this is a distinctly different side.
At this stage last season, we had only seen a solitary Lions loss. This year, we’ve seen seven. Granted, they were spared travelling to New Zealand last term but the authority they displayed elsewhere is nowhere to be found.
Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Super Rugby, however, they sit comfortably in second place on the overall log. We’ve become accustomed to the peculiarity of the format but now it’s standing out, bold and ugly.
Swys de Bruin and his men finished behind both the Hurricanes and the Chiefs on points, and barely in front of the Highlanders. Victory against the Bulls last weekend nonetheless guaranteed them a Jo’burg semifinal. A yellow-brick road to the final has been neatly paved.
For the neutral observer, the playoffs at least offer a reprieve to the predictability of the round-robin stage. Monotony has permeated the beginning stages for years now.
According to reports out of the United Kingdom earlier this year, the pressure is being heaped on Super Rugby organising body Sanzaar from multiple directions. Three South African teams, believed to be the Lions, Sharks and Stormers, are reportedly eager to jump into the Pro 14, where the Cheetahs and the Kings were forced to go. They have become “disillusioned” with life alongside the New Zealanders and Australians and take issue with the strenuous time zones. Alongside Argentina’s Jaguares, South African players often have to take monthlong trips to Australasia. Super Rugby makes little sense to everybody.
For now, all the Lions can do is beat what’s in front of them. Although certainly the favourites to progress, they’ll be wary of a hungry Jaguares side making their first appearance in the quarterfinals. The Argentines have plenty of experience in disrupting the Jo’burgers’ plans and have routinely beaten them in Buenos Aires. Survivors of the 2016 Lions side will recall how defeat to the Jaguares denied them a home final, leaving them to get decimated in Wellington.
Although the visitors have struggled at Ellis Park, De Bruin will remain cautious. The Jaguares possess ruthless backs who buoyed them to a remarkable seven-game winning streak recently. Nicolás Sánchez is one of the most lethal kickers in the competition and his side will look to slow the game down so he can snipe at the posts whenever possible.
The Sharks, meanwhile, only sneaked into the playoffs last weekend by beating the Jaguares and are set to exit just as quickly once they play an indomitable Crusaders side.
Once again, a familiar story all around. If the Durban side can do the unthinkable, then we have a tournament on our hands. Sadly, the tournament favourites look impossible to overcome and we should all settle in for the movie we’ve been watching for years: the Lions against the best.