With the 2016 Super Rugby campaign now over, we take a look at the finalists in a season review. Last up, it is the Lions.
Although they stumbled at the final hurdle, the men from Johannesburg deserve plenty of praise for what has been a superb season in which they won 13 out 18 matches played.
11 of those matches were during the league phase of the competition although Johan Ackermann’s decision to rest his first-choice XV for their last fixture – against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires before the play-offs – will be hotly debated for years to come as it eventually cost them the chance to host the final and a much better chance of winning the tournament.
Under the guidance of head coach Ackermann, the Lions, who weren’t even part of the 2013 competition – after they were relegated at the end of the 2012 campaign when they finished at the bottom of the table – have won over plenty of neutrals with their free flowing and entertaining brand of attacking rugby.
After impressing in 2015, when they finished in eighth place in the standings, the Lions continued to improve with their expansive style of play and scored more tries (81), beat more defenders (484), and gained more metres (9685) than any other side in the competition.
They also finished the season amongst the competition’s top five teams for clean breaks (225), carries (2028) and offloads (197).
Players like captain Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Lionel Mapoe led the charge this year by continuing with their fine form from 2015 while Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk’s partnership blossomed into one of the best half-back combinations in the tournament.
Jantjies revelled as a playmaker and, for the first time in his career, played well on a consistent basis throughout the season. Although his performance in his side’s loss in the final to the Hurricanes at the weekend was a forgetful one, his showing in the semi-final victory over the Highlanders will live long in the memories of Lions supporters.
Of the other players who came to the fore with superb efforts throughout the campaign, Malcolm Marx, Ruan Combrinck, Franco Mostert, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnall Skosan and Dylan Smith all enjoyed stellar campaigns which helped the side reach the final.
De Klerk, Kriel, Combrinck and Mostert’s fine form was rewarded with Springbok debuts against Ireland in June and Marx is set to follow in their footsteps after he was named in the Boks’ squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship.
If the other three, of the aforementioned players, continue with the form displayed in this year’s tournament then they should also receive Test call-ups in the not too distant future. Janse van Rensburg and Skosan finished in joint second place in the tournament’s try-scoring stakes and Smith caught the eye with numerous dominant performances at scrum-time, of which several of those were against more experienced front-rows.
Best player: A difficult choice to make as there were several players who put their hand up for this award but, in the end, we’ve opted for Ruan Combrinck. The Lions flyer hardly put a foot wrong throughout the campaign and proved indespensable, especially on attack. Combrinck scored eight tries during the campaign and finished in joint first place – with the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie and Johnny McNicholl of the Crusaders – for clean breaks (31), and third for defenders beaten (57) during the season.