Top eight to remain as Lions pin hopes on returning pair
● 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.