Wellington — The Lions may have earned the right to home advantage throughout the Super Rugby playoffs after finishing top of the standings on Saturday, but their title credentials will be truly tested in the next three weeks.
The Lions led the table on 65 points following a 27-10 win over the Sharks, who they meet in Johannesburg on Saturday, after the Hurricanes had ended the Crusaders’ quest for an unbeaten season earlier.
Johan Ackermann’s side have proved to be the best in SA over the past two years, but they accumulated their 14-1 record this season without needing to face any of the five New Zealand franchises.
They are favourites to beat the Sharks again at Ellis Park to advance to the semifinals, where they are likely to face the Hurricanes in a rematch of the 2016 final, should Chris Boyd’s side beat the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday.
The 2016 champions have no fear of Ellis Park, having notched up a 50-17 victory there in 2016 and after their morale-boosting 31-22 win over the Crusaders, loom as dangerous opponents in one-off games once more.
The Crusaders, who rested key tight forwards for the final regular season clash, will need them back on Saturday when they host a Highlanders side who were unlucky to have lost both regular season games to the seven-time champions.
The Chiefs have arguably the toughest trip to make for their quarterfinal in Cape Town against the Stormers, who beat them 34-26 at Newlands earlier this season.
Much of the regular season, however, was overshadowed by the decision to cut three teams from the competition for 2018, with two from SA and one from Australia being axed.
South African Rugby delayed making public its decision before it confirmed on July 7 that the underperforming Cheetahs and Kings were leaving the competition.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU), by contrast, announced immediately that one of either the Force or Rebels would be let go. The decision sparked an outcry from fans, while the teams have since instigated separate legal proceedings against the governing body.
To rub salt in the ARU’s wounds, the Force won six games this season, as many as the conference-winning Brumbies, including a 40-11 thrashing of the Waratahs in their final match on Saturday.
There may also be some help for the Force, who have rallied considerable community support in Perth, with mining magnate Andrew Forrest pledging on Saturday to help the team.
"He said he’s in behind us, and whatever we need, he’s going to make sure we get it," Force coach Dave Wessels said.
The crowd support clearly highlighted the growing interest for the game in developing rugby markets, one of the major reasons why the Sunwolves and Argentina’s Jaguares survived the cull after just two seasons in the competition.