JOHANNESBURG - Will Johan Ackermann rue sending a weakened side to Buenos Aires for the second year in a row?
That is the big question South African rugby fans are starting to ask as it looks increasingly likely the Lions’ loss to the Jaguares in Argentina’s capital could again cost them top spot on the overall log - as it did last season.
A year ago, Ackermann sent what equated to a ‘B-team’ to face the Jaguares in their final regular season match, knowing they had already wrapped up the conference and would play at home in the quarters and semis.
A win would have seen them top the overall log and also secure a home final.
The Lions lost (34-22), gifting top spot to the Hurricanes, and while Ackermann’s men beat the Crusaders and Highlanders handsomely in the quarters and semis at Ellis Park, they had to travel to Wellington to face the Canes in the final.
They lost that game 20-3 in atrocious weather.
While no-one can say what might have happened at home, many would say that considering the form they were in, and with the crowd behind them on a dry day, they would have stood a very good chance of going all the way.
Now, this season, the Lions again gambled - and lost - by sending a weakened side to face the Jaguares.
They were beaten 36-24 in Round 3 - their only defeat so far - and it looks increasingly likely it will mean they will again miss out on top spot and potentially have to travel to New Zealand to contend for the title.
With a game to go for both the Lions and the top-placed Crusaders, only two points separate them - 63 to 61.
For the Lions to finish first and face the Sharks in the quarters at Ellis Park - and remain at home through to the final, should they keep on winning - they would have to win their final conference match against the Sharks in Durban next weekend, and the Crusaders would have to lose to the Hurricanes, in Wellington.
Now that is a real possibility, considering how shattered many of the players from the Crusaders and Hurricanes will be after the series against the British and Irish Lions, but it’s not a given, especially when you factor in the fact the Crusaders haven’t lost at all this season. They’ll be favourites in Wellington.
Of course, even if the Lions finished second and the Crusaders first, there would also be the chance of the Crusaders losing in the quarters (as it stands right now, against the Sharks) or the semis (at this stage possibly the Hurricanes or Brumbies).
A second place finish for the Lions would pit them against the Highlanders in the quarters - with an outside possibility of facing the Sharks, too - and then against the Stormers (as Africa 1 winners) or the Chiefs in the semis - games they will believe they can win. But then it would be that trek to Christchurch to face the Crusaders.
It could all turn out very differently though. But one’s got to wonder how the Lions are feeling about sending that weakened team to Buenos Aires - and losing.
It could cost them big-time again, and it will be hugely disappointing if it does, considering the Lions have been an even more lethal side this season than last year, admittedly, having not played any New Zealand sides yet.
After the regular season last year (15 games), the Lions had won 11 matches; this year they’ve already won 13 with one to go; last year they scored 71 tries and bagged 52 points; this year they’ve scored 78 tries and bagged 61 points, with a game to go.
Will the Jaguares, of all teams - and the decision to face them with a weakened side - potentially cost the Lions a Super Rugby title, again?
Let’s hope not.