Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Success generally only lifting expectation,
the Golden Lions must now confirm their emergence from the rugby doldrums by
aiming to ditch their traditional also-rans reputation in Super Rugby.
course there is no special tradition – and pretty much the same thing applies
in, say, New Zealand – of domestic champions necessarily going on to great
achievement at the elevated level of the broader southern hemisphere
For one thing, the nature of the Currie Cup
and NPC has changed fairly significantly with the ever-diminishing presence of
leading international stars in them.
But in the case of the Lions, being able to
tick a “much better” box in Super Rugby 2012 must nevertheless be a priority as
the dust settles on their brilliant Absa Currie Cup final humbling of the
Sharks in Johannesburg on Saturday and future aspirations enter the radar.
Frankly, they have not been anything
resembling a force in Super Rugby since the days, coincidentally, of a prior
New Zealander to John Mitchell as head coach – Laurie Mains.
Under his guidance, and powered by a brawny
pack featuring such crusty names as Johan Ackermann, Willie Meyer and Andre
Venter, the then Cats (a not always harmonious alliance between the Lions and
Free State) made successive semi-finals in 2000 and 2001.
But since their return to a more uniquely
Gauteng flavour as the Lions, it has usually been well less than plain sailing
... in fact, if the world was indeed flat they’d have tumbled over the edge
Only two years ago they reached an
ignominious nadir in losing all 13 of their Super 14 games and finishing rock
bottom by some distance, and last year was only marginally better as they
brought up the rear of the five-team South African conference under the new
At least they won three matches, in a
campaign noteworthy for two of them coming abroad – unlikely triumphs over the
Brumbies and Highlanders on tour.
And in the plethora of conference derbies,
they ran several rivals extremely close – only being squeezed out late 19-16 at
Newlands in the second round by the country’s eventual best performers, the
Stormers, quickly comes to mind.
So their Super Rugby season did demonstrate
a few of the buds of Mitchell’s gradual quest to instil a team spirit that
would compensate for their already obvious lack of genuine star quality in many
individuals – it was a drive that eventually yielded a wonderful domestic harvest
in Saturday’s Coca-Cola Park showpiece.
My fancy at this relatively long-range
stage is that the Lions will, indeed, prove a harder nut to crack in the SA
conference of Super Rugby next year: it should be a tighter pool than in the
system’s debut in 2011, with no especially clear-cut candidate to win it and
thus earn the guaranteed spot in the six-team playoffs phase.
The Stormers ought to be thereabouts again,
although may do very well to emulate, never mind eclipse, their semi-finalist
status earlier this year ... they have an erroneous belief in their “depth”, I
suspect, with still not nearly enough true venom and strength of numbers in
their tight five and more particularly bruisers in the front row.
Champions of two seasons ago, the Bulls,
will be in rebuild mode after the exit of several legendary names from Loftus,
whilst the Sharks will once again feature some stellar solo names in their
arsenal but perhaps remain average on some areas of the park – midfield comes
So what price the Lions, then? The
unexpected margin of victory over the Bok-laden Sharks in the Currie Cup final
ought to serve as a real tonic for them, moving on – say what you like about
the “weakness” of this season’s competition in a World Cup year, Josh Strauss’s
team made a powerful statement against a visiting side at very close to their
customary Super Rugby strength.
The Lions may well challenge fairly
credibly for conference top spot, considering their now clearly deep-rooted
“gees”, whilst coach Mitchell’s experience of both the New Zealand and
Australian rugby landscapes will also aid their bid to buck up their Super
In scheduling terms for 2012, the
opportunity presents itself for them to have a good start: there is a strong
home flavour to their first few matches, as well as each of their two byes
falling in the first half of the programme.
But things get tougher on the “back nine”
which includes their four-match overseas leg, at a time when injuries are
inevitably starting to take an increasing toll.
The Lions are certainly blessed by the fact
that players like Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Derek Minnie and the now
foliage-freed captain Strauss himself are very likely to only get better before
they get worse.
But they also say that you need a strong
“second XV” if you wish to challenge realistically for Super Rugby honours these
days and it here, perhaps, where the Lions probably still fall shorter than
certain other local franchises.
Without wishing to disturb their fabulous
team ethic, Lions supporters probably hold out some hope that new investors in
the re-awakening union may see fit to strengthen the squad with one or two
seasoned first-class names from elsewhere, especially in the pack where certain
deficiencies remained all too obvious even in Saturday’s glory.
I am not suggesting the Lions sign some
sort of pouting, “me, me, me” rugby equivalent of Cristiano Ronaldo, but you
probably get my drift ...