Super Rugby surprise: Lions 1st into playoffs

Waratahs Rob Horne carries the ball as Riaan Viljoen of the Sunwolves, left, chases during their Super Rugby match in Tokyo, Saturday, July 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Koji Sasahara/AP

JOHANNESBURG (AP) The Lions became the first team to qualify for the Super Rugby playoffs and moved to the top of the overall standings with a 37-10 romp over the Sharks in the weekend's 15th round.

The Johannesburg-based Lions moved a point ahead of New Zealand's Chiefs 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 at the bottom for the third time in five seasons.

They underlined their newfound success with a five-tries-to-two victory over the Sharks. The win moved the Lions too far ahead to be caught by the Sharks in the Africa 2 conference, ensuring them a home playoff at Johannesburg's Ellis Park.

''Tonight was an important hurdle to get over,'' Lions coach Johan Ackermann said. ''We've secured that number one spot which is great reward. We're still not there yet.''

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.

Later Saturday, Argentina's Jaguares beat the Pretoria-based Bulls 29-11 in Buenos Aires to dent the Bulls' playoffs chances. The Jaguares' third win of the season left the Bulls struggling nine points behind the Cape Town-based Stormers in the Africa 1 conference and gave the Durban-based Sharks a wild-card chance of reaching the playoffs.

Also Saturday, the defending-champion Highlanders of Dunedin, New Zealand, fought off a determined challenge from the struggling Southern Kings to win 48-18 in South Africa. The Highlanders scored four tries and 28 points in the last 12 minutes and in doing so likely knocked the Auckland-based Blues out of playoff contention.

Highlanders fullback Matt Faddes bagged a hat-trick to lift his tally to nine tries this season.

The 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 and only four points cover the top five teams on the overall table.

New South Wales' Reece Robinson scored two second-half tries as the Waratahs overwhelmed the Sunwolves 57-12 at Tokyo.

Hurricanes flyhalf Beauden Barrett returned from test duty to kick 17 points, including conversions of two second-half tries by lock Vaea Fifita, as the Wellington-based team came from behind to beat the Auckland-based Blues 37-27.

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 Chiefs moved atop the New Zealand conference with their 23-13 win over the Crusaders on Friday in the first-ever Super Rugby match played in the Fiji capital Suva. The Hamilton-based Chiefs edged a point ahead of the Christchurch-based Crusaders in the race for the only home playoff spot available in New Zealand.

''It puts us in a position where our destiny's in our own hands,'' Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. ''A loss would have meant we're relying on others.''

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 when Force's Peter Grant missed a straightforward penalty in the last minute.