NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 05: Captain Flip van der Merwe of the Bulls shows his disappontment after the final whistle during the round eight Super Rugby match between the Hurricanes and the Bulls at McLean Park on April 5, 2014 in Napier, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

There have been whispers for a while now, and it was confirmed last weekend ... the Sharks will be South Africa’s only Super Rugby challengers this year.

On a black weekend for local sides in which none registered a win, Jake White’s Sharks didn’t even play yet remain top of the standings. And with a trip to Ellis Park this weekend, they’re almost sure to extend their lead.

The Bulls (fifth) and Lions (sixth) may still be in the playoff places, despite both losing at the weekend, but Frans Ludeke’s team have major injury concerns and have three more matches on the road, while the Lions still have to tour and on top of that. They also have to face the Sharks and Stormers before going overseas. Tough times lie ahead for both.

And, as for the Stormers and Cheetahs, well, they’re done with touring, but they’re propping up the standings and have just about no chance of finishing inside the top six.

In arguably their worst showing of the season, the Lions’ unbeaten run at Ellis Park ended with a whimper on Saturday as Johan Ackermann’s team managed just a converted try in losing 28-7 to the Crusaders. In a stop-start game, lacking in tempo and quality, the Lions paid dearly for gifting possession to the visitors – they conceded more than 20 turnovers – and for the first time this year, Ackermann showed his displeasure afterwards.

“The Crusaders stuck to their game plan ... they didn’t play any rugby, but they were clinical and more precise and waited for their chances,” said Ackermann. “They were just better than us. Our execution was poor, we were poor in the air and at ruck time. The players need to take responsibility. If they don’t, we won’t get the results.”

Lions captain Warren Whiteley blamed himself and his teammates for not sticking to their game plan. “The way we played was not the way we had trained in the week. I know we’re much better than this, that’s why the coach and the players are so disappointed.”

Next up for the Lions are the Sharks, who’ll come to Ellis Park this weekend top of the table and refreshed after a bye. Whiteley said his team need to hit back immediately. “The Sharks will be our last home game before we tour, so we need to stand up and be counted. We’re still a young group and the guys would have learnt from this experience, but we need to pick ourselves up and produce a big performance this weekend.”

The Lions have slipped to sixth in the standings, but are level on points with the Hurricanes, Waratahs and Blues, while the Highlanders and Reds are just a point further back.

It wasn’t only the Lions who were disappointing at the weekend, but the Cheetahs and Stormers as well. Back on home turf after disastrous tours to Australasia, Naka Drotske’s team gave up a 24-point lead to draw with the Chiefs. It was the second straight draw, and three-point haul, for the defending champions following their stalemate with the Bulls the previous week and they left South Africa yesterday with six points in the bag.

The shocking season for Allister Coetzee’s Stormers continued at Newlands when they went down to the Waratahs and the men from the Cape now find themselves in last place. Sadly the Bulls also came unstuck, against the Hurricanes, in their first match on tour and to make matters worse, they lost key forwards Deon Stegman and Dewald Potgieter to injury, which means veteran lock Victor Matfield will almost certainly be in action this weekend.


Stormers 11 Waratahs 22; Lions 7 Crusaders 28; Cheetahs 43 Chiefs 43; Reds 29 Force 32; Hurricanes 25 Bulls 20; Brumbies 26 Blues 9; Highlanders 33 Rebels 30


Friday: Highlanders v Bulls; Reds v Brumbies

Saturday: Chiefs v Rebels; Force v Waratahs; Cheetahs v Crusaders; Lions v Sharks - The Star