JOHANNESBURG - Next up the Bulls... and how the Lions must be relishing taking on their Gauteng rivals at Ellis Park this weekend.
After picking up 14 points from their three-match unbeaten tour of Australia, Johan Ackermann and his Lions are in a position to challenge for top spot on the overall Super Rugby log, with just four games remaining in the round-robin phase.
The clean-sweep in Australia - thanks to wins over the Western Force, Melbourne Rebels and the Brumbies – has virtually ensured the Lions will play at home in the quarter-finals in July, but they will want to get as many points as possible from their remaining fixtures to try and finish top of the pile.
Right now the unbeaten Crusaders, who’ve won 11 out of 11 compared to the Lions’ 10 out of 11, lead the way and look set to be at home in all their play-off games, but there’s still a possibility of them being tripped up.
The Lions’ run-in is far easier, with matches to come against the Bulls (home), Kings (Home), Sunwolves (home) and Sharks (away).
And while the Bulls generally pose a tough challenge for the Lions - and this week should be no different - the reality is the Lions will start as huge favourites on Saturday.
Ackermann’s men are riding high on confidence after their exploits in Australia and haven’t been beaten at Ellis Park since late April last year, while the Bulls are struggling to just win, with plenty of questions being asked about their coach Nollis Marais, the commitment of the players and the leadership of the team.
The Lions hold all the aces this week and they will probably get a dose of further good news today when the squad gather for the first time after returning from Australia.
Flank Jaco Kriel, who missed the three-week trip because of a knee problem, is expected to be fit and ready to take on the men from Pretoria -and how he’ll be champing at the bit – while wings Ruan Combrinck and Madosh Tambwe will also come into the selection mix.
Combrinck played his second game for the Lions in the SuperSport Challenge against the Valke on Sunday following his return from a shoulder operation in December and will be keen to get back into the big-time, while Tambwe is again available after missing out on SA Under-20 selection because of residency issues.
Both wings will come into the selection mix, with Ackermann possibly thinking about giving Courtnall Skosan a breather after starting him in every game this season.
Also, Ackermann is likely to involve Faf de Klerk again after the No 9 was left out of the matchday squad for the last two games on tour. Ross Cronje and Dillon Smit did duty against the Rebels and Brumbies, but with the coach favouring a rotation policy expect the Springbok scrumhalf to feature against the Bulls.
Not in his wildest dreams could Ackermann have thought his team would be in the position they currently find themselves.
It has been another dream Super Rugby run for last year’s finalists, but as captain Warren Whiteley said after Friday’s 13-6 win against the Brumbies in Canberra, the Lions have to keep the momentum going.
That does not bode well for the out-of-sorts Bulls.