Top eight to re­main as Lions pin hopes on re­turn­ing pair

Sunday Times - - Sport | Rugby - By LIAM DEL CARME

● Hav­ing been firmly knocked out of its stride, Su­per Rugby re­turns af­ter a four­week break with the South African fran­chises des­per­ate to find the form that eluded them ear­lier in the cam­paign.

The Lions, who wel­come back cap­tain War­ren Whiteley and Mal­colm Marx from in­jury, are best placed to chal­lenge the ram­pag­ing Ki­wis. Their per­for­mance dipped markedly af­ter the pair was ruled out through in­jury, and coach Swys de Bruin will hope they can spark the team back to life.

Un­like last year, the Lions have a much re­duced foot­print in the Bok set-up.

The bulk of their squad will be less af­flicted by the rigours of June.

They need to chase po­ten­tial host­ing rights for the semi­fi­nal, and by ex­ten­sion the play-off, but for that to hap­pen they need to haul in the sec­ond-placed Hur­ri­canes who are five points clear and have a game in hand. The Lions are un­likely to achieve that even if they beat the Sharks and the Bulls in their re­main­ing matches. They will need no re­mind­ing that the top three teams on the over­all log — the Cru­saders, the Hur­ri­canes and the High­landers — are yet to lose at home this sea­son.

The Lions, in fact, are far from un­touch­able in the African con­fer­ence. The Jaguares have gone on a six-match un­beaten streak and are six points be­hind the Lions with a game in hand. Given their good form on the road they may yet prove a hand­ful in the knock­out stages.

It would how­ever not have es­caped coach Mario Ledesma’s at­ten­tion that his play­ers were barely recog­nis­able when they lost a two-test se­ries to Wales while wear­ing the Los Pu­mas jersey. Los Pu­mas were ac­tu­ally well beaten.

Af­ter the Lions, South Africa’s next best hope are the Sharks, who are down in ninth on the over­all log.

The trou­ble for the Sharks is they are six points be­hind the eighth-placed Rebels. The Sharks’ re­main­ing matches are against the Lions — against whom they have lost seven in a row— the Storm­ers at Newlands and a home fix­ture against the Jaguares.

They are four points clear of the Storm­ers, who have played one game more. The Storm­ers and the 12th-placed Bulls are out of the run­ning.

At the busi­ness end of the com­pe­ti­tion the Cru­saders are very much the men to chase. They usu­ally over­come a few early sea­son wob­bles but they’ve even been spared that this sea­son. They are on a 10-match un­beaten run.

Even the Hur­ri­canes have wilted in re­cent times with suc­ces­sive de­feats to the High­landers and the Cru­saders.

The High­landers and the Chiefs could yet up­set the cur­rent or­der but ex­pect the top eight to re­main as it cur­rently stands.

Sam White­lock’s pace­set­ting Cru­saders have won 10 matches in a row.

The Lions hope the fit-again War­ren Whiteley will lift the side.

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