Lions aim to regain winning form in Super Rugby

Sunwolves Kazuki Himeno, center, advances in the first half during their match against Reds in Tokyo Saturday, May 12, 2018. The Sunwolves won their f

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Lions will attempt to end a three-match losing streak when they host the Brumbies during a crucial round of matches this weekend in Super Rugby's South African conference.

The Johannesburg-based Lions hold a seven-point lead in the South Africa conference despite losing consecutive matches to the Queensland Reds, Wellington-based Hurricanes and Dunedin-based Highlanders on an Australasian tour on which they also beat the New South Wales Waratahs 29-0.

Their return home and a match against the Brumbies, the lowest-placed of the Australian clubs, seems a strong chance for the Lions to end their losing streak. But the Brumbies have won four of the last five matches between the teams in Johannesburg and are strengthened by the return of Wallabies flanker David Pocock after a two-week injury break.

Pocock will be a major figure in the match and his work at the breakdown will be crucial to the Brumbies' effort to slow the Lions' phase possession and dull its attacking game. The Lions lead the tournament with 58 tries this season while the Brumbies have scored only 28.

But the Lions' defense has been less effective than the Brumbies, who have conceded only 30 tries so far. The Lions scored 15 and conceded 13 during their four matches in Australia and New Zealand, reflecting the disparity in their attack and defense this season.

Lions defense coach Joey Mongalo is not too concerned that the Lions leak almost as many tries as they score.

"I love watching the guys score tries," he said. "We lead the try scoring chart by quite a bit. Being attack-minded is in the Lions' DNA.

"It doesn't make my job as defense coach more difficult. It's about putting a plan in place if things don't go our way."

The Lions' recent three losses have allowed their conference rivals to shorten the lead but Mongalo is confident they can keep challengers at bay.

"Maybe there are one or two small things we can adjust but there is no reason to reinvent the wheel," he said. "I believe in continuous learning and there are a few things we picked up on tour."

The contest for second spot in the South African conference will come to life in this weekend's 14th round in which the second-place Jaguares play the third-place Bulls and the fourth-place Sharks take on the Chiefs. The last-place Stormers meet Japan's Sunwolves, who are coming off their first win of the season with a thumping 63-28 victory at home last weekend over the Reds.

The Jaguares, Bulls and Sharks are all level on 24 points — separated by points differential — and the Stormers are only a point behind.

The winners of those matches have a chance to close the gap on the Lions and to stake a claim for a playoff spot.

The 14th round kicks off with the No. 2-ranked Hurricanes hosting Queensland and also includes the competition-leading Crusaders traveling to Auckland to face the Blues and the Waratahs hosting the Highlanders.