Lions lead the pack but fierce contenders lie in wait
By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, July 16 (Reuters) - South Africa's Lions may have earned the right to home advantage throughout the Super Rugby playoffs after finishing top of the standings on Saturday but their title credentials will be truly tested over the next three weeks.
The Lions led the table on 65 points following a 27-10 win over the Sharks, who they meet in Johannesburg next Saturday, after the Wellington Hurricanes had ended the Canterbury Crusaders' quest for an unbeaten season earlier in the day.
Johan Ackermann's side have proved to be the best in South Africa over the last two years, but they accumulated their 14-1 record this season without needing to face any of the five New Zealand franchises.
They are favourites to beat the Sharks again at Ellis Park to advance to the semi-finals, where they are likely to face the Hurricanes in a rematch of last year's final, should Chris Boyd's side beat the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Friday.
The 2016 champions have no fear of Ellis Park, having notched up a 50-17 victory there last year and after their morale-boosting 31-22 win over the Crusaders, loom as dangerous opponents in one-off games once more.
The Crusaders, who rested key tight forwards for the final regular season clash, will need them back next Saturday when they host an Otago Highlanders side who were unlucky to lose both regular season games to the seven-times champions.
The Waikato Chiefs have arguably the toughest trip to make for their quarter-final in Cape Town against the Stormers, who beat them 34-26 at Newlands earlier this season.
Much of the regular season, however, was overshadowed by the decision to cut three teams from the competition for next year, with two from South Africa and one from Australia being axed.
South African Rugby delayed making public their decision before they confirmed on July 7 that the underperforming Cheetahs and Kings were leaving the competition.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU), by contrast, announced immediately that one of either the Western Force or Melbourne Rebels would be let go.
The decision sparked an outcry from fans, while the teams have since instigated separate legal proceedings against the governing body.
To rub salt in ARU wounds, the Force won six games this season, as many as the conference-winning Brumbies, including a 40-11 thrashing of the New South Wales Waratahs in their final match of the season on Saturday.
There may also be some help for the Force, who have rallied considerable community support in Perth, with mining magnate Andrew Forrest pledging on Saturday to help the team.
"He said he's in behind us, and whatever we need, he's going to make sure we get it," Force coach Dave Wessels told reporters.
The Waratahs loss to the Force, however, capped an abysmal season for the side, who won just four games and must be sounding alarm bells for the game's power brokers.
The side's Sydney base is considered one of the strongholds of the sport in a congested market for football codes in Australia.
The Waratahs' malaise was not the only concern for the ARU, with none of their sides managing to beat any New Zealand teams this year, their combined record reading a woeful 0-25.
They also won just three games against their trans-Tasman neighbours the previous season and the Brumbies, who finished on 34 points, only qualified for the playoffs because they topped the Australian conference.
New Zealand's worst-placed side, the Auckland Blues, finished on 37 points but missed out on the quarter-finals due to the conference system.
The Blues, however, blotted their copybook in their final game on Saturday when they were humbled 48-21 by the lowly Sunwolves in front of fanatical support amid scorching conditions in Tokyo.
The crowd support clearly highlighted the growing interest for the game in developing rugby markets, one of the major reasons why the Sunwolves and Argentina's Jaguares survived the cull after just two seasons in the competition. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien)