The Emirates Lions overturned a 12-point deficit to defeat the Vodacom Bulls 38-12 in Johannesburg on Saturday afternoon and clinch the South African Conference for the third successive year, while also finishing second in the overall standings to secure a home quarter-final next week against the Jaguares.
A few hours later, the Cell C Sharks also secured their place in the knockout phase by beating the Jaguares 20-10 in their Vodacom Super Rugby Round 19 fixture in Durban. The KwaZulu-Natalians grabbed the eighth spot on the overall log and as a result they will now play against log leaders, the Crusaders, next weekend in Christchurch.
In the two other conferences, the Crusaders finished as runaway winners in New Zealand, while the Waratahs clinched Australian honours despite losing to the Brumbies on Saturday, a result which opened the door for the Emirates Lions to finish second overall.
The Vodacom Bulls made an encouraging start and quickly raced into a 12-0 lead against their Gauteng neighbours. Tries by Manie Libbok (flyhalf) and Jesse Kriel (centre) handed the Pretoria outfit the early advantage. The Highvelders, however, kept their composure and scored 19 unanswered points to lead 19-12 at the break.
Ruan Combrinck (wing), Malcolm Marx (hooker) and the returning Courtnall Skosan (wing) each dotted down before the break for the home side. The Emirates Lions dominated the second half, which resulted in a penalty try and two more tries, for Combrinck and Aphiwe Dyantyi (replacement wing).
In the last round-robin fixture of the competition, the Cell C Sharks knew they had to win against the Jaguares to advance to the playoffs, after the Rebels lost 43-37 earlier in the day against the Highlanders in Dunedin. The Durbanites downed the Argentineans by 20-10 in wet conditions to snatch the last playoff spot and secure a trip to Christchurch.
Lively hooker Akker van der Merwe was again one of the standout players for the team from Durban. Van der Merwe and Kobus van Wyk (wing) were the try scorers for the Cell C Sharks, while Robert du Preez (flyhalf) added the rest of the points with the boot.
So, after 19 rounds of thrilling action, the Emirates Lions finished top of the SA standings with 46 points, followed by the Jaguares (38), Cell C Sharks (36), DHL Stormers (29) and the Vodacom Bulls (29).
Next weekend’s quarter-finals (home side first):
Friday, 20 July:
09h35: Hurricanes v Chiefs – Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Saturday, 21 July
09h35: Crusaders vs Cell C Sharks – AMI Stadium, Christchurch
12h05: Waratahs v Highlanders – Allianz Stadium, Sydney
15h05: Emirates Lions vs Jaguares – Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg