Lions ready to shine in S15?

2011-10-31 14:10
John Mitchell (Gallo)
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.

 Of 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 competition.

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 several times.

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 system.

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 to mind.

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 Rugby act.

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 ...

Read more on:    john mitchell

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