The Lions need to succeed to force South African rugby out of surrender.
After a devastating season for the Springboks, their supporters desperately need something to raise their spirits and reinvigorate their love for rugby.
Much like if Godzilla while tormenting a city stubbed his toe, winced, lost his confidence and retreated to a snug underwater cave, South African rugby is now licking their wounds after dropping to a dismal sixth place on the World Rankings. The re-emergence of the fiery Blitzbokke has been mildly nourishing but wasn’t enough to lure the behemoth out of the shadows. The Lions can be that push.
The runners-up in 2016 announced themselves as a powerful force on the Super Rugby stage, and Johan Ackermann’s coaching staff created an exciting free-flowing game plan, developed some international-worthy young talent, all while fine-tuning some of the older players to create a well-oiled, winning machine.
South African rugby needs the Lions the replicate last year’s form in 2017. But, they will face some trying challenges.
Why South Africa needs them to do well
2016 was one of the worst years in Springbok history and definitely the worst since post-isolation. The Springboks suffered their first-ever loss to Italy, had their first-ever home defeat to Ireland and were shamed after a nine-try clobbering at the hands of the All Blacks in Durban.
The Lions need to remind South Africans of the power and talent the nation possesses and make the world fear them once more.
Their role is to act as a reminder that South Africans can play running rugby, and that they can beat New Zealand sides at their own game.
The Lions were the best attacking franchise in 2016 and ran their opponents ragged, topping the competition’s stat categories for tries and points scored along with a number of attacking areas; defenders beaten, metres run and try assists. That all shows a South African outfit can come close to perfecting a running strategy.
The Jo’burgers now have the responsibility to repeat that approach in order to keep South Africans interested in the tournament.
The rest of the South African franchises produced some mundane performances last season and it is up to the Lions to keep the largest viewer base in Super Rugby invested in one of the sport’s greatest competitions.
Challenges they face
Changes to the Lions fixtures might be a disaster in disguise. They managed to tough it out against the best in 2016, beating every New Zealand team except the Hurricanes, the eventual winners.
This year, however, the Johannesburg men play against the Australian conference. Their new Antipodean opponents will be great for their table position in the first stage of the season but, at the business end of the competition, when they will suddenly have to face higher-quality New Zealand opposition that easy ride in the early days may leave them under prepared, like the Stormers in 2016.
Transformation too has been an issue for the Lions recently with only three players of colour in the usual starting XV, none of whom are in the forward pack.
Ackermann’s men seem to get away with their low transformation numbers because Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe are in pivotal positions while Courtnall Skosan performs consistently and gets his well-earned share of limelight.
There seems to have been little effort made to rectify this problem with only a few black and coloured players signed in the off season for 2017, including prop Sti Sithole and lock Marvin Orie.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the Lions in 2017 however might be a lack of confidence among the troops. The Lions built a fast-moving, bravado-based game plan last season. But after being subjected to a toxic Springbok set-up, some key players might be low on confidence.
This means the Lions’ coaching staff will need to rebuild the players’ self-belief.
For example Jantjies was one of the best players in Super Rugby last year, but after being forced into a Springbok game plan that didn’t suit him, the fly-half had a visible drop in form. The same goes for other 2016 star performers like Mapoe and Malcolm Marx, who rarely received opportunities with the Boks.
The rest of the squad might also need a lift in spirit after failing to replicate their sensational 2015 Currie Cup form where the Golden Lions went unbeaten and won fairly convincingly, opposed to the most recent tournament where they just made the semi-finals before being knocked out, succumbing to the Cheetahs 55-17.
Despite the challenges, the Lions have the capacity to achieve glory in 2017 which could be the nudge South African rugby needs to avoid imploding and become the rugby behemoth they were once more.