Lions ready to shine in S15?

2011-10-31 14:10

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 ...


  • Lionel - 2011-10-31 14:16

    The Super 15 is a different kettel of fish all together and I sincerely hope they do well. The wooden spoon must go to an Aussie or AB team next

      Johan - 2011-10-31 14:50

      Lionel, the Rebels was the Wooden Spoon last year, not the Lions. The Lions ened last of the SA Franchises, which they cant afford next year otherwise the EP KINGS will replace them

  • Benmica - 2011-10-31 14:46

    The Bulls won two of their last games against the Lions and WP with unknown factors. If they go on like this they will easily feature in the last 4 again.

      Jed - 2011-10-31 15:23

      The Bulls will be in the Bottom four. No talent and even less skill.

      Dwerg - 2011-11-01 09:21

      Maybe give them another year to catch up again. Somewhere along the line they lost the plot in signing new talent. They don't have pack dominance anymore (which used to be their big strength) no playmakers, bar Francois Hougaard - who won't play, and the back-line have a massive prove to point. Cheetahs will end first or second in SA conference

  • Pieter - 2011-10-31 14:57

    I'm sure they'll be better, but we all know and agree that the "in a class of their own" Bulls will dominate again

      Johan - 2011-10-31 15:06

      Didn't the Bulls end at #7 this year in the SUPER 15? Dont think that is dominance!!

      Pieter - 2011-10-31 18:18

      @Johan, our brain surgeon on the blog The Bulls took one breather year, I mean they won it 3 times in 4 years. That's pretty dominating I'd say. They'll continue in 2012

  • Joseph - 2011-10-31 15:20

    John mitchel tranformed the useless LIONS into the undomittable LIONS,i take my hat off for this dude, i have a strong feeling that this man will lift next year super 15, mark my words.

  • Hennie - 2011-10-31 15:21

    It is too soon. Especially since incoming players change the balance, but it is a positive step. I do believe that they will loose a number of players to the springboks though.

  • Nico - 2011-10-31 15:24

    Lions will win the S15 next year, even if we don't buy any other players, we have enough juniors to come in and who will fit in our team mentality, where the team is bigger than the individual :)

  • moregareth - 2011-10-31 15:32

    Amazing ... not even a mention of the Cheetahs for Super Rugby contention? Not even an acknowledgement?

  • Stephen - 2011-10-31 15:52

    Amazing! Win the CC and now they are arrogantly unbeatableand will win the S15! No offence but you played against the bokke who had a tough season and coming off a WC loss their focus was clearly not the CC. The Lions were grat but they had a team that oplayed together for most of the CC season and they had great cohesion. The other teams either had one to many injuries or the bokke had to slot in. Wait until you face a fresh team next season in S15 that have had time to be together and then talk if you beat them. Plus its not justSA teams you will face but NZ and Oz teams and the dreaded travel bug. Always be humble in victory - you never know when your next snotklap is coming!

      Hennie - 2011-10-31 16:24

      I am a lions fan. None of my friends are arrogant. There would be some arrogant fans, though. I am certain that the lions are not arrogant and know that there is challenges ahead. I think we are helped by what is a very good coach and he is making a huge impact. I do expect more from the S15, maybe not a cup yet, but a few more victories would be great.

      henniedotvanstaden - 2011-10-31 17:38

      The bokke played less games than the CC teams, stop making excuses about them being over played or having tough seasons, there is playerts playing more games than them. they were out played by better team, full stop. agree S15 is another kettle of fish.

  • Selma - 2011-10-31 15:53

    A few seasons ago the Bulls lost ever single match in the Super 12. Today they boast 3 Super 14 titles. The Lions are a class outfit, very young, brave and talented - they have the potential to finish in the top seven in 2012. The union needs to strengthen its bench as the Super 15 will take its toll on the stalwarts such as Van Heerden and Grobler. Elton Jantjies has a huge target on his back - shame on Lawrence for letting Michalak getting away with such a dangerous tackle on the boy - and they need a flyhalf of calibre to fill his boots. Jantjies, Hollenbach, and Taute need to be fostered, nurtured and managed and not thrown to the lions - they have Springbok written all over them. After the final I cannot wait for the next RWC.

      uwe.klopfer - 2011-11-01 09:54

      Jantjies, Hollenbach, and Taute are thrown at RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PRIDE !!!! lol...sorry couldn't resist :)

      henniedotvanstaden - 2011-11-01 15:58

      Even JP Pietersen bad sportsmanship was displayed by him, by late tackeling and without arms, Lions took it in their stride and he was the looser. Must say he and Bismarck was of the better players in Shark team.

  • Chumscrubber1 - 2011-10-31 17:50

    Move the stadium. I was at Ellis Park (I refuse to call it "Coca Cola park!) for the final, its a great stadium but situated in a really bad part of town. I think this is half the reason the Lions battle to get spectators to matches. Good crowds build team motivation. The Shark Tank isn't as nice a stadium, but brilliantly situated. It'll be a sad day, but I think its time the Lions move stadiums. Any ideas?

  • marius.theron1 - 2011-11-01 08:36

    Sorry Welpies, julle het in Curriebeker gekook maar die S15 gaan n trappie te hoog wees vir julle. Die groot spanne speel in n hoer rat in die S15.

      henniedotvanstaden - 2011-11-01 16:01

      Soos om 13 internationale spelers op hulle neuse te laat kyk, hoe hoog moet jy trap, duidelik suur druiwe

  • harold.uberstein - 2011-11-01 14:24

    Enjoy the big brag while you can, but Ive got news for you, The super 15 is a different kettle of fish. It will not be a three quarter season against teams not at their best and then bolstered by a lot of old losers. This will be the real thing and there is no way the lions will be in the top eight teams so all you gauts dream on and brag while you can. Good luck and well played in the finals against the poor old sharks

      henniedotvanstaden - 2011-11-01 16:08

      If that is the case the other teams will be worst. Keep on dreaming, I can see you are Hallucinating.

  • Claud - 2011-11-03 19:26

    I believe the Lions is on the up and my beloved Blue Bulls will start a massive rebuild next year. We have to replace Bakkies, Danie, Victor, Jaco Pretorius, Guthro, Stephan Dippenaar, Gerhard van den Heever, Stefan Watermeyer, Gary Botha, Derick Kuün, Fourie Du Preez.

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