Super Rugby surprise: Lions 1st into playoffs
The Lions became the first team to qualify for the Super Rugby playoffs and moved top of the overall standings with a 37-10 romp over the Sharks on Saturday.
The Johannesburg-based Lions moved a point ahead of New Zealand's Chiefs at the top with two rounds of the regular season to go. It's a scarcely believable rise for the Lions after they were relegated from the competition in 2012, having finished bottom for the third time in five seasons.
They underlined their newfound success with a five-tries-to-two victory over the Sharks, and led 27-0 at halftime.
Also Saturday, the defending-champion Highlanders of Dunedin, New Zealand, fought off a determined challenge from strugglers the Southern Kings to win 48-18 in South Africa. The Highlanders finally toppled the Kings with a burst of four tries and 28 points in the last 12 minutes.
The Cape-Town-based Stormers edged closer to a home playoff spot with a seven-try, 57-31 win over the Melbourne Rebels.
As the playoffs approach, the Lions, Chiefs, Stormers and Australia's ACT Brumbies fill the top four spots by virtue of leading their conferences. New Zealand's Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders, and South Africa's Sharks, hold wild card places.
The Bulls played the Jaguars of Argentina late Saturday in the final game of the round.
Two of the Lions' newly-capped Springboks returned from the international break to help them continue their best-ever Super Rugby season. Wing Ruan Combrinck scored the first try and flanker Jaco Kriel the last, with the Lions charging to a 10th win in 13 games. That record matches the two-time champion Chiefs, with the Lions collecting one more bonus point.
The Highlanders kept being pegged back by the Kings in Port Elizabeth, and only led 10-8 at halftime and 20-18 approaching the final 10 minutes. But wing Jack Wilson edged into the corner in the 69th minute and that opened the floodgates, with Patrick Osborne, Matt Faddes and front-row replacement Aki Seiuli all scoring late tries. Fullback Faddes had a hat trick and the bonus-point win moved the Highlanders into the playoff places.
The Stormers claimed their bonus point after the fulltime siren in Melbourne through a try to reserve hooker Scarra Ntubeni. Flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis finished with 27 points, including a try.
Earlier, Reece Robinson scored two second-half tries as the New South Wales Waratahs overwhelmed the Sunwolves 57-12 at Tokyo.
And flyhalf Beauden Barrett returned from test duty with the All Blacks to kick 17 points, including conversions of two second-half tries by lock Vaea Fifita, as the Wellington-based Hurricanes came from behind to beat the Auckland-based Blues 37-27.
Barrett scored 26 points in New Zealand's 46-6 win over Wales last weekend and he maintained that outstanding form, kicking seven goals from seven attempts as the Hurricanes kept alive their playoff chances.
Blues flanker Jerome Kaino also made an impact on his return from international rugby, touching down twice during a frenetic 13-minute period in the first half in which the teams exchanged five tries.
The Blues scored three of those through Kaino and his fellow flanker Kara Pryor while the Hurricanes replied with tries to prop Reg Goodes and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles as the lead see-sawed before the Blues took a 24-17 lead to halftime.
Barrett reduced the margin with two penalties early in the second half before Fifita, who hadn't previously scored a Super Rugby try, ran among the backs to score tries in the 55th and 71st minutes to give the Hurricanes a winning lead.
"It was a gritty win," Hurricanes captain Dane Coles said. "We were just guilty in that first half of playing attack and no defense."
In a game that meant nothing for the playoff chase, the Cheetahs of South Africa squeezed a 30-29 win over the Western Force of Australia, but only because Force replacement Peter Grant missed a fairly straightforward penalty in the last minute.
Grant's miss meant the Force's fight-back from 27-10 down at halftime was for nothing.