A Super Rugby gamble by the Golden Lions in fielding a reserve team against Argentina’s Jaguares backfired on Saturday as they lost 34-22 in Buenos Aires.
Coach Johan Ackermann rested all 15 players who started last weekend’s victory over fellow South Africa side Southern Kings, fearing injuries and side effects from travelling to the Argentinian capital.
The Johannesburg team needed one point from the final match of the regular season to top the overall standings but finished empty handed after surrendering a 15-12 half-time lead.
The result left New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes in first place as they became the top seeds and earned home advantage for the knockout phase, which begins with the quarter-finals next week.
The Wellington team are one of four Kiwi contenders to reach the playoffs. They will host the eighth-seeded Coastal Sharks of South Africa next Saturday.
Also on Saturday, Lions will tackle Canterbury Crusaders in Johannesburg and Western Stormers face Waikato Chiefs in Cape Town.
The quarter-finals kick off with the ACT Brumbies against title-holders Otago Highlanders in Canberra on Friday night.
The last-eight line-up raises the possibility of all the semi-finalists coming from New Zealand, the dominant country in the competition. While Lions prepared for a long, depressing flight home across the Atlantic Ocean, Jaguares celebrated the most impressive of four victories in a 15-match debut season.
“It was a tough match and the Lions enjoyed a good first half,” admitted Jaguares skipper and scrum-half Martin Landajo, standing in for injured hooker Agustin Creevy.
“But in the second half we were very good and deserved our second victory in three weeks over a South African side.
“This is a wonderful climax to the season for our supporters. I am so happy that we produced such a fine performance in front of them.”
Lions skipper and scrum-half Ross Cronje conceded that the superior side won on a bitterly cold night at Estadio Jose Amalfitani.
“The Jaguares played for 80 minutes, but we faded after half-time and conceded far too many penalties.
“Our discipline slipped under severe pressure during the second half, resulting in two forwards (Cyle Brink and Lourens Erasmus) being sin-binned.
“We want to get home and start doing our homework on the Crusaders, who beat us in Johannesburg this season.”
Number eight Facundo Isa was outstanding in an Argentine pack that held their own in the opening half and took charge after the break, especially when numerically advantaged.
Fears that the absence of inspirational leader Creevy and fellow casualty, flanker Pablo Matera, would have a negative impact proved unfounded.
Lions won the first-half try contest 2-0 and when giant winger Anthony Volmink scored his second two minutes into the second half for a 22-12 lead, it seemed the reserve-team gamble might pay off.
But the South Africans did not score again while the Argentines claimed 22 points, including tries from Isa and substitute lock Matias Alemanno plus a penalty try.
The other 19 points came from fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, who slotted two conversions and five penalties from nine shots at goal.
Volmink (2) and full-back Sylvian Mahuza scored tries for the Lions with fly-half Jaco van der Walt converting two and kicking one penalty.
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