Lions need to hit top gear as Super Rugby league stages near
The Lions were not quite in pole position but in the front row of the grid next to the Crusaders as the league stages of Super Rugby drew to a close.
That is not the only area in which they find themselves in such illustrious company.
"Clearly if you get a home finals [series] you have a big chance‚" said Bulls coach John Mitchell about the Lions.
The Lions topped the South African conference and have hosting rights in the quarterfinals — against the Jaguares on Saturday — as well as the semifinals should they get there.
"If you look at the teams in the competition that have the ability to go to their scrum and their maul then the Crusaders and the Lions are the two teams [that can do it]‚" Mitchell said after the Lions beat the Bulls 38-12 at Ellis Park.
"You don’t have to go and play a whole lot of flash rugby.
"Perhaps the Crusaders are slightly better defensively.
"If you look at the last two competitions it has been won by the team with line speed in defence. That probably gives you an indication of what is coming in the finals series.
"The Lions and Crusaders are the best at scrum and maul and they can dictate performance through that."
Mitchell cautioned that "there’s still plenty to play out" and the Lions would probably have to travel to Christchurch to win the competition.
To be real contenders should that opportunity present itself‚ the Lions should adopt a few more of the eight-time champions’ habits.
The Lions may be the joint top try scorers with the Crusaders after the league stages‚ but being more ruthless when the going is good is one area in which they can seek excellence.
It is a point not lost on captain Warren Whiteley.
"I still feel we have an extra gear. There is still a lot to work on. There are a lot of opportunities that we didn’t grab. In the playoff stages we know opportunities are gold.
"There is definitely a lot to work on. I think we are on the right path and the curve is upwards," Whiteley said.
Meanwhile, coach Swys de Bruin was beaming after his team matched the Crusaders with 77 tries in the league stages of the competition.
For the Lions it is not a matter of style over substance. As Mitchell said, they can revert to the rough and tumble of tight forward play if they need to. They had to do that against the havoc-seeking Bulls.
"We didn’t get what we were looking for and we had to change and be a bit more conservative with the pack. We backed them and the pack stood up when we needed them," De Bruin said.
The slow poison eventually took its toll.
It is a method they may have to employ with even greater conviction this weekend when they host the Jaguares.
"They are a very dangerous side‚" Whiteley said.