Worrying early signs for Lions

2012-01-28 12:19
John Mitchell (Gallo)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Perhaps the best comfort Lions enthusiasts may take from their pre-season gallop against the Stormers at Newlands is to fervently hope the Highvelders are simply more off the pace than they would like before the campaign-proper begins.

John Mitchell’s charges, the Currie Cup champions but hardly taking that sort of supposed gravitas onto the pitch with them on Friday night, suffered a heavier friendly defeat than most good judges would have anticipated at the hands of the 2011 Super Rugby SA conference winners.

The 28-6 score-line and three-tries-to-none margin was a pretty accurate summary of things, even if the visitors had some healthy enough spells of territorial ascendancy and also butchered a few promising opportunities out wide when they boasted superior numbers.

They also had an edge in the scrums against the start-out Stormers pack -- although that changed a bit when the hosts swapped an entire front row to introduce beefy customers like Tiaan Liebenberg and Frans Malherbe during the second half -- and captain Josh Strauss at least warmed increasingly to his ball-carrying task as the night developed.

Otherwise, though, it was rather painful one-way traffic in the wrong direction if you were a Lions fan among the crowd that sneaked into five figures just ahead of kick-off.

Some areas of the visitors’ game came horribly unstuck – notably their lineout where poaches were the order of the day; De Kock Steenkamp is becoming an increasingly influential factor here for the Cape franchise, making him comforting cover for Andries Bekker in the gruelling programme ahead.

Mind you, Lions hooker Bandise Maku may have been caught a little by surprise by the pesky mid-summer southeaster that blew for the entire 80 minutes; rugby conditions in Johannesburg tend to be rather more benign than that.

Strauss’s team were also found wanting for general discipline and defensive organisation, especially as the Stormers of 2012 seem intent, if Friday was any barometer, on being a little more adventurous with ball in hand from deepish in their own territory.

Veteran flyhalf Butch James did his level best to remind his colleagues of the importance of grim commitment in the tackle, pulling off a couple of near-monster hits, but he also continues to flirt with illegality in terms of his slightly infamous higher lunges.

Of course these are very early days and if you throw in the argument about peaking at right times, the Lions may well look altogether more cohesive by the time they run out at Coca-Cola Park on February 25 for their Super Rugby opener, a derby against the Cheetahs.

Watching the Lions in this exercise, it was difficult nevertheless to sidestep a suspicion that their sterling Currie Cup efforts last year won’t necessarily translate into greatly improved fortunes in the broader southern hemisphere competition.

Admirably though they fared in the domestic showpiece, it was characterised in 2011 – and sadly will probably only continue to do so – by broad absenteeism of leading Springboks, giving it a slightly “second tier” feel.

So their still largely Honest Joe personnel aren’t necessarily going to suddenly hot-foot their way to dizzy heights in Super Rugby 2012.

It remains difficult to contemplate marked improvement on their second-last overall status last season, when only Australian rookies the Melbourne Rebels – since beefed up by a genuinely stellar Wallaby name or two – fared less productively.

Tellingly, perhaps, the side the Lions fielded at Newlands was actually a lot closer to a full-strength combination than the Stormers put out, because apart from the first-choice outside back division they boasted, the Cape side will probably alter for the better increasingly in other areas as the Super Rugby season takes root.

Throw in the depressing publicity of late about their financial plight – or perhaps “alleged” plight, to make some allowance for Kevin de Klerk’s defiant counter-arguments – plus confirmation by SARU earlier on Friday that the Southern Kings will, indeed, play Super Rugby come what may next year, and things don’t look hugely cheery in the camp of last year’s conference wooden-spoonists.

They might need to call on an awful lot of their known squad “gees” and the coaching acumen of Mitchell and others in the next few weeks and months to make up for some swelling clouds in other areas ...

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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