Johannesburg’s Lions appear to be South Africa’s best placed contender for the 2016 Super Rugby title given their form and remaining matches.
All Super Rugby teams have now played 12 matches and the Lions are just three points behind the tournament leading Crusaders.
If the Lions finish the season in first or second place they will have a home play off which means one of the wild card teams will have to travel and play the Lions at altitude.
Should the Lions and Crusaders go all the way to the final the Crusaders will have a psychological edge over the Lions as the Crusaders have already beaten the Lions 37-43 in Johannesburg this season.
Another danger team for the Lions is the Hurricanes who they could face in the play-offs as they too will have a psychological edge over the Lions after the Wellington based side gave the Lions their biggest defeat this year when they beat the Lions 17-50 in Round 10. Both New Zealand sides would be confident if they were forced to travel to Johannesburg in the knock out stage.
Crusaders and Lions remaining run
1.CRUSADERS (45, +146):
Chiefs (Fiji), Rebels (h), Hurricanes (h)
2.LIONS (42, +135):
Sharks (h), Kings (h), Jaguares (a)
When injury struck the talismanic Elton Jantjies, who had been in stellar form marshalling his dangerously effective backline all season, many hearts skipped a few beats in anticipation of what it would mean for the Lions going forward.
Enter Marnitz Boshoff, who had been on ice while Jantjies was running the show.
The nearly-forgotten flyhalf finally got his chance to step onto centre stage, and the 56-20 Round 14 result against the Bulls at Loftus should serve to allay any doubts about Boshoff’s capabilities.
The one-time first-choice flyhalf for a team on the rise had been sidelined to obscurity after a few questionable performances, gifting Jantjies the opportunity to strut his stuff and make the 10 jersey his.
But finally, although under unfortunate circumstances, Boshoff, who played one Test for the Springboks against Scotland in 2014, got the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his coach as well as the rugby-loving public.
In the process, not only did the Lions break their duck at Loftus Versfeld, but they also completely dismantled the Bulls and added some valuable gains to their points difference on the Super Rugby standings, further affirming themselves as title contenders
Leading up to the Bulls fixture, Lions head coach Johan Ackermann, for his part, backed his standby pivot.
“Marnitz has played at the highest level, played in finals and so we can’t ask for more in terms of experience,” said Ackermann.
“He must just enjoy the moment and know the team will back him and look after him,” he said.
“He can handle the pressure and obviously he is a good goal kicker so that is a plus. He brings something different.”
What Boshoff does bring is a different tempo, and tactical approach to the game. His goal-kicking was up to scratch as well, only missing three out of 12 shots at goal.
It wasn’t all just the Boshoff show, of course. The usual Lions performers all put their hands up – Franco Mostert, Faf de Klerk, Jaco Kriel, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Combrinck and all the rest, with Warren Whiteley once again leading from the front.
After the game, Allister Coetzee named his Springbok squad for the upcoming three-Test series against Ireland, and in a side that rewarded form, no less than seven Lions players were initially pulled up.
Following a monumental performance such as the one the Lions put in at Loftus, the players would be forgiven for looking like they’d rather be in an ice bath than hanging around on the pitch long after the final whistle had blown.
Yet, after Coetzee went through the announcement formalities at the press conference clear across the country at Newlands Stadium, several beaming Lions players still proudly stood in full kit at Loftus for the post-announcement interviews.
Alongside the already-capped Whiteley, Lionel Mapoe and Julian Redelinghuys, teammates De Klerk, Kriel and Combrinck expressed their delight in being recognised. Had it not been for Jantjies’ ill-timed injury, he would have been in the picture too.
In addition to the seven players in the Springbok squad, the Lions also boasted four players in the Ackermann-coached South Africa ‘A’ side – Malcolm Marx, Howard Mnisi, Courtnall Skosan and Mostert, who has since been promoted to the Springbok squad to replace injured lock Pieter-Steph du Toit.
With their barnstorming Super Rugby run up to the mid-year season break, their commanding (2nd overall) position in the tournament standings and no less than 11 players pushing for higher honours, there really is no other SA team that can touch the Lions right now.