The Lions smashed the Sunwolves 94-7 in a 14-try blitz on Saturday, a record victory to apply the pressure on the Crusaders at the top of Super Rugby.
The Lions' winning margin of 87 points was the biggest since Super Rugby went to 18 teams and the biggest in the tournament for 10 years. The Lions fell just short of the all-time Super Rugby record for biggest win, the Bulls' 92-3 blowout over Queensland Reds in 2007, an 89-point margin.
The Lions equaled the Super Rugby record of 14 tries in a match.
The brutal victory in their first game back after a monthlong break for internationals in South Africa took the Johannesburg-based Lions to two points behind the Crusaders at the top, and cranked up the pressure on the Christchurch-based team, which returns to action in two weeks after New Zealand's test series against the British and Irish Lions.
Then, the Lions and Crusaders will play their last regular-season game and fight for top spot. The Lions travel to the Sharks while the Crusaders — with 14 wins out of 14 — will put their unbeaten record on the line in a tough test away at defending champions the Hurricanes.
A Lions win and a Crusaders loss in that final round would see the Lions steal top spot at the very end of the regular season, giving them the significant advantage of a possible home final.
In the only other Super Rugby game, the Cape Town-based Stormers scored the game-clinching try with six minutes to go to edge the Cheetahs 40-34 in a drama-filled South African derby.
The Stormers won it late through loose forward Sikumbuzo Notshe's try and Cheslin Kolbe's conversion from the touchline, while each team had a man sent off for an off-the-ball scuffle right at the end of the game. The Stormers had already qualified for the playoffs and the Cheetahs were already out of contention.
On Friday, the Bulls beat the Sharks and the Southern Kings won away at the Jaguares of Argentina, with only the South African conference in action this weekend after three weeks of internationals. The Australian teams return next weekend and the New Zealand teams the weekend after.
In Johannesburg, the Lions picked up the trophy for winning the South African conference with the performance of the season so far, running in nine of their 14 tries in the second half. The Sunwolves capitulated in all areas under the onslaught at Ellis Park and the statistics were telling: The Sunwolves missed 53 tackles to the Lions' nine. The Lions made 1,068 meters with the ball in hand. The Sunwolves made 289.
Apart from the absence of captain Warren Whiteley, ruled out for the rest of the season with injury, the Lions fielded their strongest lineup. Coach Johan Ackermann decided against resting his Springboks after holding a team meeting with them in the week to gauge how they felt.
"I don't even know why he called us in because we were so keen to get back into it," Lions stand-in captain and Springboks flanker Jaco Kriel said.
Still, the Lions had done enough by early in the second half for Ackermann to bring off many of his stars.
Wing Ruan Combrinck scored a hat trick, with his third coming off an interception after the final hooter as the Lions were ruthless to the end. Flankers Kriel and Kwagga Smith scored two tries each. The Lions played with replacement scrumhalf Faf de Klerk filling in at flyhalf for the last 20 minutes. He set up four tries and scored one himself.
"If you can't make your first-time tackles or keep your line, you're not going to make it," Sunwolves captain Willie Britz said.
The Sunwolves' only try came through replacement Uwe Helu. By then, the Lions were leading 59-0.
Japan's Sunwolves have been on the wrong end of a few big results since their introduction to Super Rugby last year. They lost 92-17 to the Cheetahs for the previous record margin in the 18-team era. They also opened this season with an 83-17 hammering at home by the Hurricanes.