Lions defeat Sharks to finish top seed for the Super Rugby playoffs
The Lions have topped the Super Rugby regular season table with a 14-1 win-loss record, achieving the feat without facing a New Zealand team.
The Johannesburg-based South African side went to the top of the table on Saturday (NZT Sunday) when they beat the Sharks 27-10 at King's Park in Durban, leap-frogging the Crusaders to seal top spot and the home advantage that goes with it in the finals.
They will now play the Sharks again, but at home at Ellis Park in next weekend's quarterfinals, and by virtue of top place in the overall log at the end of 17 weeks of the group phase are guaranteed to play at home if they advance further to the semifinals and final.
The Lions finished ahead of the Crusaders, who lost their unbeaten record away against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday to allow the South African side to leapfrog them and finish two points ahead. Both sides won 14 of their 15 group games.
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The Crusaders will now host the Highlanders in a South Island derby in the last eight. In next weekend's other playoff ties, the Brumbies host the Hurricanes in Canberra on Friday, while the Stormers play the Chiefs in Cape Town on Saturday (NZT Sunday).
LIONS' ROAD TO THE TOP
The Lions secured top spot in the competition without playing a New Zealand team. Super Rugby's conference structure meant they only played Australian and South African teams this year, plus Japan's Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares.
While matches against the South African conference teams tended to be tight contests for the Lions, they thrived against Australian rivals recording wins of 55-36 against the Waratahs, 44-14 against the Reds, 24-15 against the Force, 47-14 against the Rebels and 13-6 against the Brumbies.
The Lions were also the victors in a 94-7 thrashing of the Sunwolves. Their only loss of the season came in round three against Argentinian side the Jaguares, going down 36-24 in Buenos Aires.
The Lions have scored 81 tries in 2017, only bettered by the defending champion Hurricanes with 89. The Crusaders scored 77 tries in the regular season this year.
The Lions' point differential from the regular season was the second best of the 18 teams too, finishing on +322, just shy of the Hurricanes on +324. The Crusaders finished on +241, the Chiefs +141 and the Highlanders +180.
The Blues finished in ninth place on the overall standings and had a points differential of +34. They scored 55 tries in the season, the same number as the Chiefs.
FINAL ROUND WIN
The Lions, runners-up in last year's competition, outscored the Sharks on Saturday (NZT Sunday) by three tries to one after a slow start with Springboks Malcolm Marx and Andries Coetzee going over to ensure a 13-10 halftime lead and captain Jaco Kriel adding one in the second half.
"It's an amazing feeling to be top of the log. We've taken it week by week," Kriel said.
Lions first five-eighth Elton Jantjies slotted four penalties, but made the error that led to the Sharks' only try when his 25 metre drop out was short and went straight into the hands of Sharks wing Kobus van Wyk, who had the pace to beat a surprised Lions defence for an easy score.
Sharks first-five Garth April opened the scoring with a 10th minute penalty and also added a conversion.
Defeat for the Durban team proved fortuitous as it meant they avoided a lengthy trip to New Zealand to face the Crusaders.
The Stormers warmed up for their playoffs clash with the Chiefs with a 41-33 win over the Bulls in Pretoria. They scored six tries to five in a high tempo match with Seabelo Senatla grabbing the match clinching try in the dying minutes after the Bulls had struck back when halfback Piet van Zyl and centre Jesse Kriel dotted down. Kriel got two tries for the Bulls and Springboks flanker Siya Kolisi was among the Stormers' scorers.
SUPER RUGBY PLAYOFFS SCHEDULE (NZT)
Brumbies v Hurricanes in Canberra - Friday, July 21
Crusaders v Highlanders in Christchurch - Saturday, July 22
Lions v Sharks in Johannesburg - Sunday, July 23
Stormers v Chiefs in Cape Town - Sunday, July 23
SUNDAY (NZT) MATCH RESULTS
At Durban: Lions 27-10 (Malcolm Marx, Andries Coetzee, Jaco Kriel tries; Elton Jantjes 4 pen) Sharks 10 (Kobus van Wyk try; Gavin April con, pen).
At Pretoria: Stormers 41 (Cheslin Kolbe, Siya Kolisi, Dillyn Leyds, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Seabelo Senatla, Damian Willemse tries Willemse 3, Kolbe cons Willemse pen) Bulls 33 (Jesse Kriel 2, Jason Jenkins, Duncan Matthews, Piet van Zyl tries Tian Schoeman 3, Tony Jantjies cons).