The ascension of the Lions to Super Rugby table-toppers has been described as a major obstacle for the four title-chasing New Zealand teams.
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd says the debilitating effect travel can have during the play-offs could play into the hands of the red-hot South African side.
The Lions have won seven of their last eight games to lead by a point from the four Kiwi outfits on the overall ladder. The Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders are all a point behind each other from second to fifth.
Under competition rules, only the top-qualifying New Zealand side can host a quarter-final with the three others – if they maintain their lofty perches – forced to travel to Australia or South Africa.
There will be some hellish travel involved if the Lions host a semi-final and/or the final, Boyd said.
“People keep talking about how good the NZ conference has been but the Lions deserve to be top,” he said.
“They’ve only lost three games. They’re a very tough team to play and you add on the hostile environment of Ellis Park in Johannesburg and it’s a real tough contest.”
The Lions are favoured to keep top spot, with their last two regular season games against the lowly Kings and Jaguares.
In the last 15 years of Super Rugby, the top-qualifying side has won the title on 12 occasions. The runners-up have done it twice while the Highlanders broke the mould last year by winning from fourth.
Boyd said the Highlanders’ achievement was exceptional – capped by beating his team in the decider – but he noted they didn’t have to contend with a draining trip to South Africa in the play-offs.