Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Successive matches where they have been some way below their best standards … but Super Rugby wins each time nevertheless, and nine log points out of a possible 10.
That is perhaps as powerful a statement as any about how the Lions have broadly “wised up” as a squad this season, as well as taken on board certain lessons about how they came up just a little short as tournament runners-up in 2016.
All that is keeping them from current top spot competition-wide is the ongoing excellence of the Crusaders, unusually still unbeaten after as many as nine matches.
The seven-time champions boast 41 points, four more than the Lions … a situation explained by the Johannesburg franchise’s lone reverse thus far, when they opted to field a weakened team in Buenos Aires against the Jaguares a few weeks ago.
It is true that the Chiefs (37) have the same tally as the Lions, but they are slightly inferior on a “for and against” basis.
Also to bear in mind, importantly, is that the various New Zealand sides, over the remaining few rounds, will play some especially dog-eat-dog derbies against each other in a conference collectively so superior to every other.
That is reason alone for the Lions to retain a high degree of optimism about ending ordinary season in pole position, although maybe Warren Whiteley and company are being shrewd enough not to worry too much about what happens in matches outside of their own specific interest.
Almost every team has a “dip” spell in the gruelling competition, and it is possible that the Highveld-based side have just come out of one of their own over the past fortnight or so … crucially with no sacrifice being made in the win column.
A commendably humble bunch, they will know that they did not look enormously like title material in the hard-earned 24-21 home win over the Jaguares, and then again on Saturday when the Australian tour opener against the Force in Perth was in the balance for quite generous periods.
I made the point on Twitter at an advanced stage of the match that the contest was delicately poised: the Lions a mere three scoreboard points from losing the match, yet also just one try short of a bonus-point win.
In the end, the Lions produced some of their best and most clinical, cool-headed rugby at the business end, Elton Jantjies being rewarded for an authoritative all-round showing at flyhalf with the precious third try after the siren.
It was by no means a sparkling showing from the visitors, against motivated foes so clearly indicating the competition-survival peril they are in, and as coach Johan Ackermann rightly noted at halftime, his charges had shown suitable desire up to that point but not the accuracy to accompany it.
The Lions had revealed similar, third-quarter mental mettle and game-sharpening at right times a week earlier against the Argentinean outfit at Emirates Airline Park, trailing by seven points at a dangerously advanced stage before getting it all together when it really mattered to eke out the important, in-conference victory.
What their supporters are probably entitled to believe now is that the Lions have ridden out a fairly flat period and are poised for a much more consistently polished performance in game two on tour when they tackle the vulnerable Melbourne Rebels on Saturday (07:00 SA time).
The Rebels really seem there for the taking: not only were they thumped by the similarly unfancied Kings in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, but they will enter the Lions game off the long-haul flight back and decimated by injuries both before and during the match in the Eastern Cape where they ran out of specialist options completely in the key berth of scrumhalf.
I believe the Lions will have to play extraordinarily badly throughout to lose this one, even if I have received egg on my face plenty of times before for brazen sporting predictions and no doubt will again.
Should they leap the Melbourne hurdle safely, they will remain healthily “on” for a clean sweep of the Aussie visit, as the Brumbies are no great shakes despite nominally leading the limp conference in that country.
A final straight back in South Africa of Bulls (home), Kings (home), Sunwolves (home) and Sharks (away) isn’t the worst roster to have toward the climax, either.
I said it last week and say so even more vigorously again: these Lions are in a good space, especially while no New Zealand teams stand in their way until the knockouts …
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