All roads lead to Jo'burg as Lions secure vital home playoff spots
Bury the sour grapes, there's no point squealing about the Lions topping the Super Rugby log.
What's done is done. The Lions, gifted an easier passage through the competition's farcical round-robin phase because the Sanzaar draw deemed they didn't have to travel to New Zealand, claimed the minor premiership by defeating the Sharks 27-10 in Durban at the weekend.
This guarantees the South African team home advantage in Johannesburg for as long as they stay alive in the playoffs, starting with their quarterfinal match, a re-match against the Sharks, to be held at Ellis Park next Sunday morning (NZT).
Given that success over the Sharks, the Lions are at short odds to repeat the win and host the semi the following weekend. Captain Jaco Kriel, predictably not wanting to create any hot headlines, stated otherwise. "What we must not assume is that our match against the Sharks next weekend will be similar to the one we have just played," Kriel said.
"They will be a much more difficult 'monster' to tame even though we will enjoy home advantage at Ellis Park."
For offshore teams the concept of playing in New Zealand is greeted with little enthusiasm; the travel factor, combined with the aggressive nature of the Kiwi opponents in cool weather isn't that inviting.
But that isn't something the Lions, who lost just one game in the regular season, had to worry about. They must feel like blowing Sanzaar a cheeky kiss, just to display their gratitude.
The previously unbeaten Crusaders, who had recorded 14 straight wins, could have prevented the Lions taking pole position. Instead they stumbled to a 31-22 defeat to the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday night.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said he had to rest his All Blacks front row of Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks after such a heavy workload against the British and Irish Lions, stating it would be irresponsible to run them into the ground with the playoffs looming.
The absence of the three internationals wasn't the reason for the Crusaders' first loss in Super Rugby; a high penalty count, which favoured the Hurricanes 17-8, and an inability to build on an early 12-0 lead did them no favours.
Now the Crusaders must host the Highlanders in their quarterfinal - who ran over the Highlanders 40-17 in Dunedin - at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday night.
The Hurricanes, who were missing first five-eighth Beauden Barrett and centre Vince Aso because of illness and injury at the Cake Tin, will play the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday night.
The Chiefs, having beaten the Brumbies 28-10 in Hamilton to ensure the Aussie sides lost all 25 games against their Kiwi counterparts this season, must make the long commute to Cape Town for their sudden-death game against the Stormers on Sunday morning (NZT).
They are familiar with this routine. Last year the Chiefs travelled to the Western Cape and thumped the Stormers 60-21 in their playoff game.
The Stormers warmed-up for the sudden-death phase with a 41-33 win over the Bulls in Pretoria, spending only a couple of hours in the air as they winged their way back to Cape Town.
Although the Chiefs collected more competition points (57) than the Stormers (43), they must pack their suit cases because the Cape Town side won their conference. The same applies to the Hurricanes (58) and Brumbies (34).
It seems pointless to witter on about the other games that were played, given they had no bearing on the playoffs.
But it would be mad to not point the spotlight at the Blues, following their shock 48-21 loss to the Sunwolves in Tokyo.
What a shambles. Blues coach Tana Umaga accepted responsibility for the defeat in the post-match media chat, but he must be shattered by his players' lack of desire and tenacity.
The Sunwolves, who entered the game with just one win banked, played with flair and courage. The Blues were just reckless with their attitude.
"We did what we thought was right but clearly it wasn't," Umaga said in reference to his team's preparation. "We can't go pointing fingers at players and what they are doing, we've got to look at ourselves and what can we take out of this."
AT A GLANCE
Quarterfinals (prefix denotes seeding, all NZ times):
Friday: 4-Brumbies v 5-Hurricanes in Canberra, 9.35pm
Saturday: 2-Crusaders v 7-Highlanders in Christchurch, 7.35pm
Sunday: 1-Lions v 8-Sharks in Johannesburg, 12.30am; 3-Stormers v 6-Chiefs in Cape Town, 3am
Semifinals (highest seeded team to host):
Lions/Sharks v Brumbies/Hurricanes
Crusaders/Highlanders v Stormers/Chiefs