The Super Rugby season has hit the home stretch and we take a look at what lies ahead in the road to the finals for the teams in the South Africa conference.
Lions (W8, L7 - 41pts)
The 2017 Grand Finalists will be forced to sit and wait this weekend with the bye before rounding out their regular season with a home derby against the Bulls. Having all but locked up a spot in the finals, the Lions will be looking to rejuvenate ahead of their one final game before the post-season.
If history is anything to go by, we’ll see the Lions cruise into the finals. The Johannesburg club lost their most recent South African derby to the Sharks, 31-24; however, they were undefeated in 21 derbies prior (W20, D1) and will certainly be looking to draw upon their attacking flair which saw them score 40 points or more or nine occasions in that span.
The Lions successes in Super Rugby 2018 have come on the back of forcing possession from their opponents, and none have been better at this than forward duo Kwagga Smith and Malcolm Marx.
The pair have won more turnovers than any other players in the competition this season, though the Bulls will provide stiff opposition given they have conceded the third fewest turnovers per game (15) of any team in 2018.
Jaguares (W9, L5 - 38pts)
If there is one form team of the competition heading into the final fortnight, it’s the Jaguares. The competition’s surprise packets come into Round 18 on the back of seven consecutive victories, which included an impressive four-game tour of Australia and New Zealand.
The Argentine squad have starved their opposition of possession this season, demanding 17m 3secs of their own possession per game - the only team over the 17-minute mark. They’ve also conceded the fewest points per game of any team outside the New Zealand conference (25).
The Jaguares will need to draw on their impressive road form again in the final stages as they play their last two regular season games in South Africa against the Bulls and Sharks. In the hunt for a maiden finals berth, the Jaguares certainly have the momentum to continue on the right trajectory.
They’ve won their last four games away from home on the bounce, with three of those victories coming after having trailed at the half-time interval. However, they’ve earned just two wins from 11 previous games in South Africa, and haven’t won in the country since the opening round of the 2017 campaign.
Sharks (W6, D1, L7 - 32pts)
The Sharks teeter on the edge of post-season eligibility, six points shy of the Jaguares and three shy of the Melbourne Rebels. They’ll play in a bottom-of-the-conference derby away to the Stormers this weekend before finalising their regular season with a home game against the Jaguares in Round 19.
The Durban squad have certainly matured as the season has progressed - after winning just two of their opening eight games, they’ve now won four of their last six and come into this game on the back of a confidence-boosting victory over the Lions.
The Sharks have won their last four games on the bounce against the Stormers, and have won all but one of their previous five games against the visiting Jaguares. Furthermore, they boast the competition’s leading point-scorer after 17 rounds - Robert du Preez has posted 189 points so far this campaign, 25 more than any other player. Du Preez has scored 15+ points in four of his last five games for the Sharks, while his 38-point haul against the Blues in Round 7 was more than any other player has managed in a single game in the last eight seasons.
Bulls (W5, L9 - 25pts)
Locked in a battle to avoid finishing fifth in the South African conference, the Bulls have a tough run home in facing the teams ranked first and second in their conference in the final two rounds. They’ll host the Jaguares before visiting the Lions in their final game of the 2018 campaign and will be looking to pick themselves up and perhaps spoil a few parties at the other end of the standings.
The Bulls have lost their last three games on the bounce, conceding 134 points across that time, including a 54-24 loss to the Jaguares in Round 14. Their final round fixture will see them the more likely victor, given they’ve won three of their last four South African derbies and failed to score 30+ points in just one of their last 10.
Stormers (W5, L10 - 25pts)
The Stormers will face a much tougher task of wrenching themselves off the bottom of the conference ladder given that they have just one game remaining for their campaign.
The Cape Town outfit will face the Sharks in a home derby this weekend and come into this game on the back of a respectable defensive record despite not always turning that into competition points.
The Stormers haven’t conceded more than 26 points in a game since Round 8 this season, and have conceded an average of just 22 points per game in that time.
However, they’ve picked up just one national derby win from five attempts this season and, even if they pick up a win against the Sharks in Round 18, it will be their fewest derby victories in a single Super Rugby season since 2007.