Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Losing has become an unpleasantly lingering
virus for the Lions ... and whether they even possess the required “muti” to
recuperate must be considered in some doubt.
Their fifth defeat on the trot, to the Cheetahs in
Bloemfontein on Saturday, not only left them very much down among the dead men
of Super Rugby 2012 thus far, but was alarming because of the margin of defeat.
Previously, the Johannesburg franchise had been earning the
respect of neutrals for the spirit and tenacity they showed even as they
surrendered games – with a bit more luck, after all, they might have actually
beaten both the Hurricanes and even the high-flying Stormers at Coca-Cola Park.
Keep in mind also that when they went down 23-13 to the
Crusaders at the venue less than a fortnight ago, Butch James badly hooked a
last-ditch penalty that would have earned them the consolation of a pretty deserved
losing bonus point for ending within seven points of the seven-time champions.
Until last Saturday, then, the Lions had at least clung to a
reputation as a “nearly” team – in line with a broader trend in this year’s
competition for many results to be desperately close.
So people who are pessimistic about their chances of
escaping the nether regions of both the conference and overall tables would
only have increased their levels of fear after the 21-point defeat to the Cheetahs,
initially touted as probable participants in a two-horse race with them to
stave off relegation as the spectre of the Southern Kings’ planned involvement
from 2013 looms ever larger.
Suddenly at Free State Stadium the Lions looked rather more
genuinely like a spooked, low-on-star-factor outfit, never mind that they
barely deserved to be trailing by a gaping 23-0 at the break and nominally
“won” the second half 5-3 as the Cheetahs went into a cruise control mode.
There is probably a case for saying that, rather than the
Lions actually looking compelling in that second period, the host team simply
started showing the effects of fatigue from their unusually successful overseas
The long-term injury list in the Big Smoke is a near-pitiful
one, and rank inexperience in their front row, for instance, was exposed as
in-form Cheetahs behemoths Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and WP Nel put
the squeeze on at scrum time.
Clearly the Lions need to break their losing habit fast:
they simply must clinch at least one of successive home fixtures against the
Bulls (this Saturday) and then the Brumbies (after the tonic of a final bye
weekend) if there is to be any chance of their parlous position altering.
That encounter against Jake White’s charges is the start of
a nine-game unbroken roster for Josh Strauss and company until the end of the
ordinary season, although the Lions will obviously benefit more than most from
the time off during the June Test window: Springbok candidates are unlikely to
come dime-a-dozen from the franchise as things stand.
After the Brumbies date the Lions head abroad for their
four-game tour: it was there that they rather rejuvenated their campaign last
season, winning two of the games, although cynics may be inclined to mutter
than perhaps lightning won’t strike again this time.
The Bulls will be heavy favourites this weekend, although if
the Lions can capture some of their 2011 “Currie Cup spirit” in the
cross-Hennops derby they may have a slim chance of upsetting the form book.
Defeat will only be another ominous turn ... the Lions then
face the prospect of tackling both the men from the Pretoria and the Stormers,
significantly the two best SA flag-carriers thus far, on enemy turf in two of
the last three weeks of the campaign.
Like it or not, if the Lions’ campaign does disintegrate
into glaring embarrassment – it is not too far off doing so -- they will only
politically ease the controversial matter of the Kings’ addition to the Super
Rugby party ...
These are the
remaining 10 Lions fixtures:
Bulls (H), bye, Brumbies (H), Chiefs (A), Blues (A), Reds
(A), Force (A), Sharks (H), Stormers (A), Rebels (H), Bulls (A).