Super Rugby Preview: Lions

Date published: February 20 2016

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With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Lions.

Perennial strugglers the Lions will be quietly confident ahead of the start of this season's tournament as they surprised all and sundry with a string of impressive performances during their 2015 campaign.

The men from Johannesburg have made tremendous strides in recent years after years of misery in the competition. They have the dubious record of being the side that has finished with the tournament's wooden spoon the most times (six) and were eventually relegated at the end of the 2012 season when they were replaced by the Kings.

But despite missing out in 2013, the Lions returned to the competition in 2014, when they finished 12th in the standings and followed that showing up by finishing in eighth spot last year and also went on to win the Currie Cup. That latter achievement will be used as a launchpad to do well in Super Rugby this year.

Last Year: There is an air of expectancy amongst the Johannesburg-based franchise's supporters after their side showed in 2015 that they can compete with the best at this level.

Under the guidance of head coach Johan Ackermann, the Lions finished in eighth spot with nine victories, a draw and six defeats.
Despite missing out on the play-offs, they would have been happy with that position in the standings after they kicked off their campaign with three successive defeats against the Hurricanes, Sharks and Stormers.

They then went on their overseas tour and secured victories against former champions, the Blues and Reds, as well as the Rebels, with their only defeat registered against seven-time winners the Crusaders.

Upon their return to South Africa, they beat the Bulls, Sharks and Cheetahs and looked on course to reach the play-offs but although they notched victories over the Highlanders, Cheetahs and Waratahs, it was defeats to the Bulls and Brumbies, and a draw against the Stormers in their final league match, which ended their dream of reaching the knockout rounds.

This Year: Drawn in Africa Conference Two, along with the Jaguares, Sharks and Kings, they will fancy their chances of reaching the play-offs. They have managed to retain the services of most of their playing staff and will try to use that as a means to continue with their upward curve in the tournament.

Their campaign starts wih three away matches – against the Sunwolves, Chiefs and Highlanders – before returning to South Africa where five of their next seven matches will be at their Ellis Park home – a venue which was like a fortress for them in last year's Currie Cup when they were unbeaten in all their matches there. 

Their enterprising style of play has won them many fans and they will look to build on the groundwork laid during the two previous campaigns by reaching the tournament's knockout stages.

Key Players: Back-rows Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel as well as fly-half Elton Jantjies will look to continue where they left off in 2015 when they were the shining lights in their team's impressive run of victories.

Whiteley and Kriel are a formidable combination who are both excellent ball carriers but also equally adept on defence. While Whiteley is the team's Super Rugby captain, Kriel skippered the Lions to Currie Cup success so both players' leadership will also be crucial.

So much of the Lions success in recent years is down to the performances of Jantjies who has shone as their chief playmaker. He was South Africa's best fly-half in this tournament last year and was unlucky to miss out on selection to South Africa's squad for the Rugby World Cup. The past two years, Jantjies has also had spells in Japan – where he plays for NTT Shining Arcs – which has benefitted the Lions as his game has shown considerable improvement, especially his decision-making.

With both Handré Pollard and Patrick Lambie sidelined with injuries, Jantjies is viewed by many as the favourite to be South Africa's fly-half when they take on Ireland in June. If he continues where he left off in 2015, then he will wear the Boks' number ten jersey against the Irish. 

Players to Watch: Scrum-half Faf de Klerk is a superb attacker who has shown in the past that he can tear defences to shreds with his vast array of skills. He also provides slick service to his outside backs and after some brilliant performances in 2015 he will be a marked man this year.

Young lock Lourens Erasmus burst onto the scene with several stellar performances in the Lions' successful 2015 Currie Cup campaign. Although he does his core duties well, Erasmus impressed with ball in hand in the Currie Cup and scored several spectacular tries. If he can deliver similar performances in this tournament then higher honours await in the future.

Prospects: After last year's impressive performances, Ackermann and his charges had nothing to show for their efforts. They should continue with their impressive form and, in doing so, reach the play-offs this year.

Players In: JW Bell (Pumas)

Players Out: Mark Richards (Kings), Schalk van der Merwe (Montpellier), Mark Pretorius (released), Lohan Jacobs (released), Alwyn Hollenbach (retired)

Fixtures:

Saturday, 27 February v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, 5 March v Chiefs (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, 12 March v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 19 March v Cheetahs (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Round 5: BYE
Friday, 1 April v Crusaders (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Friday, 8 April v Sharks (Kings Park Stadium, Durban)
Saturday, 16 April v Stormers (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 23 April v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, 30 April v Hurricanes (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Round 11: BYE
Saturday, 14 May v Blues (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 21 May v Jaguares (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 28 May v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria)
Saturday, 2 July v Sharks (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Friday, 8 July v Kings (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 16 July v Jaguares (Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires)

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