JOHANNESBURG - It was not long ago that the Lions looked like they would be runaway conference winners, but back-to-back defeats in Australasia and some tough fixtures coming up has left the South African Super Rugby Conference wide open.
At this stage the Lions (31 points) are still seven points clear of their nearest challengers, the Jaguares (24), following the Argentines’ four-from-four record on tour Down Under, but the gap has closed significantly with the Sharks (23), Stormers (22) and Bulls (20) still in the mix to win the group.
The thing is the Lions, Jaguares and Stormers have already played 11 games each, with four to go, while the Sharks and Bulls have only played 10. And, the Lions still have to face all three of the other local teams in their remaining games - the Stormers and Sharks away from home and the Bulls at Ellis Park.
All of these teams are in good form and have momentum behind them, which is not the case with the Lions. The other match, on their return from their tour next week, is against the Brumbies, in Joburg.
How things have changed for Swys de Bruin and Co! They first hit a snag when they unexpectedly lost to the Blues a few weeks ago after being well up at one stage, and then also lost to the Jaguares for the third straight year in Buenos Aires.
Then they came unstuck against the Crusaders on Easter Sunday and most recently lost to the Reds and Hurricanes, in Australasia. The last two defeats will especially hurt as the Lions kicked off their tour with a stunning and almost unbelievable 29-0 win over the Waratahs in Sydney.
De Bruin’s team are now six wins from 11 matches and they’ll be desperate to not return home next week with only a 50% overall win record. Beating the Highlanders in Dunedin this weekend will take some doing, but it is an outing the Lions will fancy their chances of getting the better of.
For one thing, the Highlanders would have had to travel back to the south island of New Zealand from South Africa this week, which could hamper their sharpness on Saturday, and on top of that they’ll be licking their wounds after being given a hiding by the Sharks in Durban at the weekend.
But, the Lions won’t be in the best state mentally after copping hidings in their last two outings and will also be without their most dynamic and influential player, hooker Malcolm Marx, this week. He suffered a groin injury last weekend and is already back in South Africa.
In his place will be Robbie Coetzee, an abrasive player but by no means in the mould of Marx. And, the tourists won’t have a recognised back-up, De Bruin opting to not fly in a replacement for Marx.
It’s a big weekend for De Bruin and the Lions. They’re a team who’ve travelled successfully in recent seasons but another defeat this weekend would leave them needing something special from their remaining games if they’re to finish the round-robin stage as this country’s leading side.