Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd told the media any team wanting to win the 2017 Super Rugby title would have to do so against the Lions in Johannesburg.
Boyd said so before the first whistle was blown in this season’s competition.
Boyd, whose Hurricanes won the competition in 2016, said the Lions favourable draw and the quality of the Lions players, would guarantee them finishing top of the overall league.
Boyd discounted any New Zealand team coming first because of the intensity of the New Zealand conference and the fact that the Kiwi teams play each other home and away in the league stages.
The Lions, through sustained brilliance all season, took the league honours with a win against the Sharks after Boyd’s Canes had beaten the Crusaders in Wellington. The Crusaders defeat was their first in this year’s competition.
The Lions, should they beat the Sharks in the quarter-final, are likely to play a New Zealand team in the semi-final. This will be the first time they’ll play a Kiwi side this year.
It’s relevant because there are lessons in what happened in 2016. The Lions played four of the Kiwi franchises in the league last year and won twice against the Chiefs (in New Zealand) and the Blues (in Johannesburg). They then whipped the Highlanders (quarter-final) and the Crusaders (sem-final) in Johannesburg before losing the final in Wellington against the Hurricanes, who earlier in the league had scored 50 points against the Lions in Johannesburg.
The Stormers in 2016 looked outstanding all season but also never played a Kiwi side in the league stages. Their first introduction to Kiwi opposition was in the 61-22 defeat against the Chiefs at Newlands. In 2012 the Stormers also finished first in the overall league stages and then crashed to the Crusaders in a home semi-final.
The Lions coach Johan Ackermann is appreciative that it will take three more wins to be champions but only one defeat renders the league standing as insignificant.
Ackermann applauded the effort of his players to improve on the 2016 second place but quickly added the scores start at zero in Saturday’s quarter-final against the Sharks.
The derby element also can’t be disputed and expect to see a challenge from the Sharks more consistent with their earlier visit to Johannesburg than the limp surrender against the Lions in Durban.
The Sharks were in a no win situation in Durban. If they had beaten the Lions they would have been on their way to New Zealand to play the Crusaders in the quarter-final. Losing was actually more beneficial to their play-off prospects because it meant they only have to travel to Johannesburg.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez felt his players were mindful of the two travel options and that it would have played on their minds but he said it still didn’t justify the ineffective performance.
The Lions will be wary that the Sharks surrendered so easily and they can prepare for one heck of a contest. I still think they have too much class and confidence to come unstuck against the Sharks.
The Stormers host the Chiefs in a repeat of the 2016 quarter-final but this time the Stormers have added substance to the belief that they can make it to the semi-finals.
The Stormers beat the Chiefs in the league and are a better team than this time last year.
The Canes complete the play-offs with a trip to Canberra. The Canes finished the season with 58 league points and the Brumbies managed just 34! Yet the conference system meant the Aussies getting home ground advantage.
Somehow I don’t see it making a difference and the smart money has to be on two Kiwi and two South African teams making up the last four.