JOHANNESBURG - The run-in was always going to be a big test for the young Lions team of Swys de Bruin, and so it is proving to be.
After getting back in the Currie Cup race with back-to-back wins recently against the Pumas (29-28), Griquas (34-17) and the Blue Bulls (36-33) after a poor start to the campaign, the Lions’ charge was halted by the Sharks last weekend.
The runaway leaders in the competition, who’ve registered 10 wins from 11 matches and are hot favourites to go all the way this year (which would be their eight Cup title), ended the Lions’ three-game unbeaten run with a comfortable 24-10 victory in Durban, leaving the teams in the same positions they were going into the clash.
For the Lions, who’re four wins from 10 and in fourth place in the standings with two rounds of action remaining, are in a real fight to make the semi-finals.
Not only did De Bruin’s young team, minus several Springboks and other players who’re plying their trade in Japan, have to deal with the Sharks last week, this week they’re up against Western Province (second) and they wrap up next week against the Cheetahs (third).
That’s a run-in for the Lions of playing against the three leading teams in the competition on back-to-back weekends.
With 47 points the Sharks cannot be caught in first place, while it will take some doing for the second-placed WP (32) and Cheetahs (30) to be hauled in, but it is the teams behind the Lions, in fifth, sixth and seventh place that De Bruin will be worried about - and why the next two matches are so important for the Lions.
The Pumas have 24 points, the Blue Bulls have 22 and Griquas, in seventh, have 21 - and they can all overtake the fourth-placed Lions if De Bruin’s men slip up against Western Province and the Cheetahs in their last two matches.
The good news though is those two matches will both be played at Ellis Park - this Sunday and next Saturday.
Also, De Bruin and his charges will know that the teams chasing them also have a few tough encounters, some of them against each other as well, which will inevitably knock someone out of the running.
The Pumas and Griquas, who have already played 11 matches, meet in Nelspruit this weekend before the Pumas finish with a trip to Loftus to take on the Bulls, who’re in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs this week.
It’s certainly going to be an interesting run-in for a number of teams, including the Lions, who’ll be keen to qualify for the playoffs, at least, in De Bruin’s first Currie Cup season in charge.
He’ll also know that after this weekend he’ll be able to call on a good number of Bok players who’ll boost his team’s chances of putting up a proper fight in the race for the title.
Here one thinks of Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Ross Cronje, Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee. Franco Mostert and Elton Jantjies, however, will head to Japan to play club rugby until February.