The chances of South Africa's Lions ending New Zealand's recent rule over Super Rugby have been hurt with the playoffs approaching after influential captain Warren Whiteley was ruled out for 6-8 weeks with injury, likely seeing him miss the rest of the competition.
The Johannesburg-based Lions have over the last two seasons been the team most likely to challenge the New Zealand outfits, who have won four of the last five Super Rugby titles and are in position again to dominate the playoffs.
The Lions are second overall to the Christchurch-based Crusaders ahead of their final two regular-season games, against Japan's Sunwolves on Saturday and the Sharks two weeks later.
While the Lions will expect to beat the Sunwolves at home, Whiteley's absence could be felt in the South African derby against the Sharks — who are also in the playoffs — and will most certainly be a factor in the knockout stages.
Whiteley, the South Africa captain and No. 8 who was injured on international duty, only has a slim chance of recovering from a torn ligament in his pelvis for the week of the Super Rugby final in early August.
The Lions need to win both their remaining league games and hope the Crusaders slip up next month against the defending-champion Hurricanes to top the standings.
Finishing top overall brings the significant advantage of a possible home final.
Following the break for internationals, Super Rugby returns Friday and Saturday with games from the South Africa conference only. The Australian teams are back in action next weekend and New Zealand's contenders on July 14 and 15 after the All Blacks' series against the British and Irish Lions.
Those June-July test series will have an impact on the final stages of Super Rugby.
As well as the injuries, Super Rugby teams will have to manage their returning internationals as the playoffs approach, making sure top players have enough rest before the business end of the season but aren't left to get rusty.
"It's quite a balancing act we have to play here with the players after a tough few weeks of rugby action they've endured," Sharks forwards coach Ryan Strudwick said.
The Durban-based Sharks, guaranteed a wild-card playoff place, kick off the 15th round against the Bulls on Friday without Springboks forwards Tendai Mtawarira and Jean-Luc du Preez, who are being rested after playing in South Africa's three tests against France. Fullback Curwin Bosch returns to the team from duty with the South Africa under-20s.
The Pretoria-based Bulls, who are out of playoff contention, are missing a host of injured Springboks as they attempt to salvage something from what has been one of the three-time champion's worst Super Rugby seasons.
The run-in still has meaning for the Sharks, with their eventual league position determining their opponents in the knockouts.
Cape Town's Stormers, also with a playoff place sealed, travel to the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs on Saturday in another local derby ahead of the Lions' game against the Sunwolves. Lions coach Johann Ackermann has decided against rotation, selecting nine Springboks in his starting 15 for the Sunwolves.
In the round's other game, the Southern Kings travel to Argentina to play the Jaguares.
The Jaguares have had their best season in Super Rugby this year, winning five out of 12 games to have a better record than three of the six South African teams and four of the five Australian teams. But the Jaguares' depth and stamina will also be tested against the Kings after so many of their players were in international action for Argentina for three straight weekends in June.