Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Lions may have last laugh in Super Rugby playoffs

Lions coach Johan Ackermann rested his best players for the game against the Jaguares. Photo / Getty Images
Lions coach Johan Ackermann rested his best players for the game against the Jaguares. Photo / Getty Images

The presiding view is that the Lions took a huge gamble not sending their best side to Argentina for their final conference game and it backfired.

All they needed to take the No 1 ranking was a losing bonus point against the Jaguares and with that they would have been assured of home advantage for as long as they kept winning.

Supposedly, Lions coach Johan Ackermann will now be regretful and embarrassed that his second-string side failed to secure the single point they needed and instead of playing the Sharks, now face the Crusaders.

But that implies Ackermann's gamble was reckless and ill thought out - which it wasn't.

He took a calculated risk knowing that the worst case scenario was not one to be overly concerned about. Every way he looked, the right thing to do was to keep his best players at home.

What he knew before playing the Jaguares was that the Lions were guaranteed to finish no lower than second. He knew they were assured of a home quarter-final and a home semifinal should they keep winning in the playoffs.

He also knew that if the Lions finished second overall, they would be playing one of the Kiwi teams in the quarter-final.

So while the Crusaders were getting smashed by the Hurricanes in Christchurch, Ackermann's frontline troops were resting up.

His top team have had two weeks to rest, train, sleep in their own beds and turn up at Ellis Park on Sunday in the best shape possible.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, had to recover after the Hurricanes, patch themselves up and hang around until today before catching a long-haul flight to South Africa.

The alternative was for the Lions to fly their best players to Argentina, hope they could take the points they needed and then scramble back to South Africa to face the Sharks, who have built form and confidence with two strong home wins.

Ackermann could see that the rewards of not taking his best players to Buenos Aires easily outweighed the risks. What he will also have factored in is that if a New Zealand team did take the No 1 ranking, they faced a high chance of playing another New Zealand team in the semifinals.

Given the competitiveness and closeness between the four New Zealand sides left, it is by no means inconceivable that if the Lions, if they can keep winning, could end up the highest-ranking side left when the competition gets down to two teams.

Even if they are not, Ackermann will be quite happy to fly to New Zealand for a final - knowing they beat the Chiefs in Hamilton this year and his top players haven't done any long-haul travel since early March.

- NZ Herald

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