Johan Ackermann has split opinion regarding his decision to rest his top players against the Jaguares but with a full-strength line-up ready to face the Crusaders in the Super Rugby quarter-finals, his side are under considerable pressure to deliver.
If you’re top seed by the penultimate week of the regular season, then those high expectations come with the territory.
The Lions aren’t just South Africa’s best title hope – they’re the best title hope outside of New Zealand.
The Brumbies dominance from the opening weeks of the season has faded. Few expect the Sharks to triumph in Wellington outside of their own camp. The Stormers are certainly capable of defeating the Chiefs, except Damian McKenzie and his side have carved teams up all season long.
Leaving the Lions. Their rise from 12th two years ago to 8th last season and now finishing second by a point at the top of the overall standings has been arguably forgotten given their Currie Cup success in 2015 and 11 wins out of 15 in Super Rugby, with all the focus on wins over rapid progress.
And altough winning in Buenos Aires wasn’t guaranteed, the Lions’ spine of Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel, Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe and Ruan Combrinck have all performed so well in 2016 – all relatively new Springboks, with Marx not far away – that they would have been sure favourites.
Having thrashed the Sharks three weeks ago at Ellis Park, a re-match would have suited the Lions perfectly. Not to mention home advantage as the highest seed throughout the play-offs, including the final.
Ackermann knew that was at risk when he made the decision to rest his stars, banking on his fresh squad to get the better of a travelling New Zealand outfit the following week – the Crusaders as it worked out – and trusting that if the Lions do make into the final and must travel to New Zealand to face the Hurricanes, that they can draw from their experience of defeating the Chiefs away earlier this year.
From the outside it looks like an educated gamble. For the Lions, it’s a re-iteration of the belief within their squad of what they’re capable of.
Are they ahead of schedule as a side? Possibly. The answer to that will come with how they handle the pressure during the weeks ahead. Unlike the rest of the sides in the last eight they are unable to rely on previous play-offs experience. The last time we saw a Johannesburg-based outfit in the knockout stages was the Cats back in 2001.
But forget that – at their best this year, the Lions have imperious. They are the top try scorers, top metre-makers and have beaten the most defenders in Super Rugby, all of which don’t happen by accident.
After a number of miserable years the Lions at the very minimum have enjoyed their best season ever.
According to our poll on the site which has been running since Thursday, the majority of readers believe we’ll see a set of all-New Zealand semi-finals.
If there’s a side to prevent that happening, it’s Ackermann’s Lions. But they face some challenge, and a defeat will put their team selection against the Jaguares under a new level of scrutiny.