Ahead of the 2017 season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Lions.
The Lions will need to prove this year that they weren’t just one-hit-wonders in 2017 and that they are the Super Rugby powerhouse they were dubbed last season.
And with minimal player losses and a few easier fixtures, the Lions could paint Johannesburg red once again.
Last year: The Lions were the hero that non-New Zealand sides needed last season as they reached the final after beating every Kiwi side in Super Rugby besides the eventual winners, the Hurricanes. They played with a bravado-based game-plan that saw them attack the opposition line from point-blank range and in turn bewilder all opponents who came their way.
The spine of the team came from a powerful front row backed up by hard-working and physical loose forwards. Their back-line thogh was where they really made their mark as Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk were arguably one of the most effective offensive half-back pairings in the tournament. The combination of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe were the ideal line-busters in midfield while the try-scoring aptitude of Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan out wide was too much to handle for most competitors.
The Lions finished the 2016 competition statistics first in some of the most enviable categories such as tries scored, defenders beaten, try assists and points scored which is testament to their prolificity in offence.
The Pride of Jozi finshed on top of the South African group and second on the overall table after losing just five games last season, one of which away to the Jaguares after playing a second string team to keep their high-profile players rested for the business end of the competition. A decision that would come back to haunt them after losing out on a home final.
They could not keep their run of form going into the final after they were completely outplayed by the Hurricanes in Wellington 20-3. They were never allowed into the game after the Hurricanes intelligently blitzed the Lions half-backs, their main point of attack, and never allowed the men from Jo’burg to get into the game.
This year: We should expect much of the same as last year from the Lions going into 2017. Unless their competitors have cracked the enigma that is the Lions’ attacking gameplan in the off-season, which is possible, the Lions should have an even more dominant season going into the round robin part of the season. This year the conferences switch their opponents and the Lions will play against Australian opposition rather than the much tougher New Zealand opposition. This should give them an easier run to the finals leg of the tournament.
They have retained most of their star power going into the new season, but do have the noticeable omissions of loose-forward Warwick Tecklenburg who has retired at 30-years old and key-player Julian Redelinghuys who suffered a neck injury in last year’s Currie Cup semi-final. It remains to be seen whether the influential Redelinghuys will return to rugby. The Lions will also mourn the loss of Combrinck who will miss the first few rounds of the competition after injuring his shoulder against Wales last year.
The Lions have the opportunity to stamp their authority on the competition with their first few fixtures. The Waratahs will most likely be their toughest Australian fixture and they host the men from Sydney in their second game which means they could reveal their intentions for the rest of the competition quite early. They then travel to play the Jaguares before facing an improved Reds side in Jo’burg, both of which could be potential banana peels.
Key players: The lethal combination of Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk will be vital for the Lions prospects. Both players had some of the highest try-assist tallies in the competition last season and Johan Ackermann’s men will want that form to continue into 2017. Warren Whiteley’s soldier-like commitment to the cause is instrumental in their success. His in-game heroics as well as his leadership is one of the Lions’ greatest strengths. The Pride of Jozi also have Jaco Kriel in their arsenal who was immense for them last year.
Players to watch: With the departure of Franco Mostert the Lions were able to sign second-rower Marvin Orie from the Bulls, an almost perfect replacement considering Orie possesses the same height, weight and almost all the same strengths as Mostert. Orie is also an incredibly mobile lock and acts as a fourth loose-forward while South African Sevens star Kwagga Smith will add an injection of pace to the Lions play while being a real threat with ball in hand.
Prospects: Finishing at the top of the South African group should be no issue for the Lions. If they play with even half of the gusto and accuracy that they did last year it should a breeze. The finals stages is where the red and white ship might hit dangerous waters as they become accustomed to the lower intensity of sub-par sides in the South African and Australian conferences. Despite that jolt to the system the Lions can make it to the finals once again if they stick to their strategic guns.
Players In: Jean-luc Cilliers (Golden Lions), Gerrie Labuschagné (Golden Lions), Aphiwe Dyantyi (Golden Lions), Selom Gavor (Golden Lions), Dean Gordon (Golden Lions), Michael Tambwe (Golden Lions), Jarryd Sage (Golden Lions), Gerdus van der Walt (Golden Lions), Eddie Fouché (Golden Lions), Shaun Reynolds (Golden Lions), Marco Jansen van Vuren (Golden Lions), Jano Venter (Golden Lions), Hacjivah Dayimani (Golden Lions), Wiehan Jacobs (Golden Lions), Victor Sekekete (Golden Lions), Kwagga Smith (Golden Lions), Bobby de Wee (Golden Lions), JP du Preez (Golden Lions), Rhyno Herbst (Golden Lions), Marvin Orie (Bulls), Pieter Jansen (Golden Lions), Justin Ackerman (Kings), Johannes Jonker (Border Bulldogs), Sti Sithole (Kings)
Players Out: JW Bell (Spain Valladolid), Sampie Mastriet (released), Jacques Nel (not named), Marnitz Boshoff (Connacht), Stephan de Wit (Stormers), Ruaan Lerm (Kings), Warwick Tecklenburg (retired), MB Lusaseni (retired), Martin Muller (released), Ramone Samuels (Stormers), Julian Redelinghuys (injured), Clinton Theron (Boland Cavaliers)
Saturday, February 25 v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium)
Saturday, March 4 v Waratahs (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 11 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield)
Saturday, March 18 v Reds (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 25 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium)
Saturday, April 1 v Sharks (Ellis Park)
Round 6: BYE
Saturday, April 15 v Stormers (Newlands)
Friday, April 21 v Jaguares (Ellis Park)
Saturday, April 29 v Force (nib Stadium)
Saturday, May 6 v Rebels (AAMI Park)
Friday, May 12 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium)
Saturday, May 20 v Bulls (Ellis Park)
Sunday May 28 v Kings (Ellis Park)
Saturday July 1 v Sunwolves (Ellis Park)
Round 15: BYE
Saturday July 15 v Sharks (Kings Park)