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.
A team galvanised by circumstances that saw them excluded from Super Rugby in 2013, the Lions will again be out to prove that they can pose a serious threat to some of the more realistic title contenders.
Their expansive style of play has captured the imaginations of South African fans from all corners and more of the same will be expected from Johan Ackermann’s men this year.
Last Year: The Johannesburg-based squad made their intentions clear from the get-go as they romped to an impressive victory over the Cheetahs in the opening round.
While a victory over their Free State rivals was always a possibility, few would have expected them to get the better of the consistent Stormers the following week. Through their solidity at set-phase, the Lions managed to put pressure on some of the best sides in the competition although what was most impressive during their comeback year was the accuracy and structure the team showed in defence.
They would go on to bank victories over the Blues, Reds, Bulls and Rebels in what turned out to be their best Super Rugby season to date – proving that they were more than capable of competing at this level.
This year: With the core of the players who helped them reaffirm their right to compete with the best southern hemisphere sides deciding to stay on, the Lions will be eager to prove that last year’s results were not a flash in the pan in comparison to other years where they have generally been bottom-feeders in the log standings.
A lot of emphasis will again be placed on the work-rate of their forwards and this time round many of the men they relied on so heavily to assert dominance during the domestic Currie Cup competition, will bring international experience to the party.
This recognition of talent will not only serve as motivation to some of their other rising stars, but should also serve as a friendly warning to sides that may have underestimated them in the past.
It will, however, be crucial for the Lions’ backline players to produce the goods from the inevitable quality first-phase possession their forwards are likely to provide. The pride of Johannesburg have again drawn the mighty Crusaders in what should be an acid test in Christchurch.
They will also face the Blues and Reds with their only likely win on tour being a clash with the Rebels. With depth in personnel still not at the required level to be considered contenders, the Lions will be hoping that their player reserves are not tested prior to what will be a rock-hard Australasian tour.
Key Players: Warren Whiteley, the Lions captain has represented the Springboks in both the 15-man and sevens codes and brings a wealth of experience to the team from a leadership and skills perspective. He always leads by example and has the ability to remain calm even when crucial on-field decisions are required. With Whiteley working alongside flank Jaco Kriel and Derick Minnie, the Lions will always be competitive at the breakdown where they might want to improve on their discipline which cost them at times last year. Another main decision maker is fly-half Marnitz Boshoff and his accuracy when kicking at goal could again hold the key to his team’s success.
Players to watch: On the cusp of receiving his first Test cap, Jaco Kriel was one of the team’s stand-out performers last year.
Not only was he outstanding in defence, his ability to break through some of the most respected defensive lines in the tournament makes him a real threat. In a World Cup year, he will certainly not be holding back.
In the backs Lionel Mapoe will hope to make a big splash. Injuries have often prevented Mapoe from achieving his full potential, but as one of few experienced outside centres in the country, Mapoe may very well fancy this as a season to prove that he deserves to be at the top as he certainly has the ability to do so.
Lastly watch out for rising star Armand van der Merwe. As a late bloomer during his team’s Currie Cup season, Van der Merwe is likely to take to Super Rugby like a duck does to water.
Prospects: As is the case with all sides – even those who boast some of the most experienced campaigners – a lot of the team’s fate will depend on the frequency at which injuries occur during the season. The Lions have invested in improved conditioning programs and have undoubtedly put in the hard yards in pre-season training.
The question will be whether they can keep their goal of further improvement alive when the inevitable setbacks occur. The team may very well feel that a maiden top ten finish is within their sights although they will be hugely disappointed that they weren’t able to sign a few big names ahead of the tournament.
The Lions completed last year’s tournament without a main sponsor and know that if they are able to deliver on the field, their new partners would not hesitate to open the chequebook in years to come. Bottom half.
Players in: Luan Jacobs (Bulls), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Bulls), Sylvian Mahuza (Leopards, loan), Sampie Mastriet (Bulls), Rudi Matthee (Pumas, loan), Howard Mnisi (Griquas), Luther Obi (Leopards, loan), Mark Richards (Blitzboks), Francois Robbertse (Leopards, loan)
Players out: Willie Britz, Michael Bondesio, Chrysander Botha, JW Jonker
Fri, 13 Feb vs Hurricanes (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 21 Feb vs Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Sat, 28 Feb vs Stormers (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 7 March vs Blues (QBE Stadium, North Harbour)
Sat, 14 March vs Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Fri, 20 March vs Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Fri, 27 March vs Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sat, 4 April vs Bulls (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 11 April vs Sharks (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Round Ten: BYE
Sat, 25 April vs Cheetahs (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 2 May vs Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Sat, 9 May vs Highlanders (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 16 May vs Brumbies (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 23 May vs Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Sat, 30 May vs Waratahs (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Sat, 6 June vs Stormers (Newlands Stadium, Cape Town)
Round 18: BYE