The Lions snatched top spot in the Super Rugby standings in the last game of the regular season on Saturday, beating the Sharks and taking advantage of the Crusaders' first loss of the season to jump ahead of them and earn the top seeding for the playoffs.
That gives the Johannesburg-based Lions, last season's losing finalists in New Zealand, the chance of hosting the 2017 final in three weeks.
The Lions ground past the Sharks 27-10 in Durban in their South African derby to end the league stage. That denied New Zealand's Christchurch-based Crusaders after they led the standings for almost the entire season.
The Crusaders slipped up at the end against defending champions the Hurricanes, beaten 31-22 earlier Saturday in Wellington for their first loss in 15 matches this season. It could be a costly defeat for the seven-time champions.
While there are still three rounds of knockout games before the Super Rugby champion is decided, the No. 1 seeding gives the Lions a crucial home advantage — should they keep winning — in a tournament where long treks across time zones for away games can be a telling disadvantage.
The playoff picture is now clear, although the matchups were decided only after the last game of a four-month, 17-round regular season.
The Lions' victory meant they will play the eighth-placed Sharks again in a week, this time at home at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The Crusaders, as No. 2 seeds, host the seventh-placed Highlanders in an all-New Zealand playoff.
The Cape Town-based Stormers host the Hamilton-based Chiefs after the Chiefs were knocked down to sixth by the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes' victory gives them an easier trip to Australia to face ACT Brumbies, who are the only Australian team among the eight in the playoffs and, on paper, the weakest having lost eight of 15 games this season.
The Crusaders appeared to have the match against the Hurricanes under control. Winger Seta Tamanivalu scored two tries in the first 15 minutes for 12-0 and they were still ahead 12-7 at halftime. They led 22-14 after 55 minutes.
But lapses of discipline and defense allowed the Hurricanes to go ahead with tries to winger Wes Goosen and flanker Vaea Fifita, then to seal the match with a late penalty to new All Black Jordie Barrett.
"We gave away too many penalties at key times and we had our chances but didn't convert them," Crusaders captain Matt Todd said.
Hurricanes captain T.J. Perenara said the Crusaders remain the team to beat in the playoffs but he was pleased his team "put ourselves in a position to play for another championship."
In Durban, the Lions were not at their expansive best. They also threatened to blow their chance when a wayward cross-kick by flyhalf Elton Jantjies went straight to Sharks winger Kobus van Wyk, and he found wide open space in front of him to put the Sharks ahead 10-8.
That was the Sharks' only try, though, and their last points. The Lions scored three tries through hooker Malcolm Marx, fullback Andries Coetzee and flanker Jaco Kriel. Jantjies kicked four penalties as the Lions played a more conservative brand than they're used to after deciding a win was all that mattered.
Elsewhere, fullback Damian McKenzie scored a try among 18 points as the Chiefs beat a second-string Brumbies 28-10. The Chiefs held a narrow 13-10 lead at halftime but kept the Brumbies scoreless while adding two tries in the second half.
The Chiefs face the biggest trek of the first round of knockout games as they head to South Africa to face the Stormers, who they beat 60-21 in a quarterfinal in Cape Town last year. The Stormers warmed up for that playoff by beating the Bulls 41-33.
Japan's Sunwolves pulled off a remarkable turnaround by beating the Auckland-based Blues 48-21 only a week after a 52-15 loss to the Stormers and two weeks after their record 94-7 loss to the Lions.
At Perth, Western Australia, the Western Force beat the New South Wales Waratahs 40-11. The Force are one of two Australian teams — the Melbourne Rebels being the other — being considered for elimination from the 2018 competition.
Two South African teams, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, have already been cut as Super Rugby trims from 18 teams to 15 just two seasons after it expanded from 15 to 18.