Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - A stirring, near-miraculous four weeks.
That is what the Lions need from here if they are to realise - at last opportunity for the foreseeable future, I believe with conviction - the dream of winning the elusive Super Rugby title.
Instead the current crop seem, rather likelier, destined to go down as one of the more notable “nearly” cases in the history of the southern hemisphere competition considering their two successive years already as runners-up.
Truth be told, even reaching the final in 2018 seems a formidably long shot at this point; their route to the showpiece is fraught with far greater pitfalls this time than in either of 2016 or 2017.
For that, they have largely themselves to blame; you only deserve a steep road to the spoils if as they do, with one league game to go, you sport an innocuous eight victories from 15 matches.
That is a violent regression from their near-unrelenting win habit of the prior two seasons, and history weighs gigantically against the Lions - now likely to book a home quarter-final at best, and then have to embark on another overseas slog if they even shift onward to a semi-final and the showpiece.
Such has been their inconsistency during 2018 that going all the way only appears even more of a fantasy: their best sequence of triumphs thus far is three, all on South African soil and involving the distant first trio of matches of the season.
Since then, the Lions have done rather the opposite of turn screws; it’s been more a case of slowly splitting apart at the seams.
Nevertheless, a Highveld home derby victory over the Bulls on Saturday (15:05 kick-off) would not only wrap up the SA conference for the Lions - the Jaguares would be unable to catch them, regardless of their result against the Sharks at Kings Park soon afterwards - but serve as a shot in the arm for a concerted, courageous late push in title terms.
One or two factors do work in their favour: key figures like captain Warren Whiteley and behemoth hooker Malcolm Marx should only increase their mojo, for instance, in what is left of the competition after very recent returns from the crocked list.
And just maybe carrying a “dark horse” label into the knockout phase won’t be the worst thing for the Lions this time: it would represent a different dynamic to 2016 and 2017, when their ordinary-season form had been such that they were instead burdened largely with the pressure of favoured status.
Maybe, just maybe, that volume of expectation played a part in the successive final losses, first to the Hurricanes in Wellington and then, last year, so disappointingly at home to the Crusaders.
Everybody knows that on a good day - OK, it’ll have to be three or four good days - this particular breed of Lions can still compete lustily with virtually all comers in Super Rugby.
So the smart-motivating Whiteley is sure to cajole his charges, with special earnest, into believing that they remain in with a puncher’s chance of ultimate glory.
To be frank, if they come up short again this time, it may be several years - and even that’s being kind, given the general state of and challenges facing South African franchise rugby - before the Johannesburg outfit genuinely contend again for the main silverware.
A period of “rebuild”, with all the usual short- to medium-term perils attached, is firmly in the offing for them once the dust settles on the 2018 tournament, as a formidable array of the playing bankers of the last three or four years of generally upward trending will be fleeing the fold for more lucrative overseas employment.
At least for the next handful of Super Rugby campaigns, I anticipate the Lions slipping to a more pronounced mid-table sort of force in overall terms, even if they should stay fairly solid contenders purely for the SA spoils in an insipid local conference.
Yes, they are bringing through a decent batch of appealing young players, especially in the back division, who will only get better.
But there is also going to be an enormous new void in broad squad experience very soon: a trend you might say has already taken noticeable, damaging root in the results column with the phasing out of big names like Jaco Kriel, Ruan Ackermann and Akker van der Merwe.
Let’s not forget, either, the deeply regrettable, enforced retirement in 2017 of luckless tighthead prop Julian Redelinghuys, still only 28 and an engine-room figure the Lions would have been entitled to feel might have been in his prime for them round about now.
If the departures of those men have already so clearly been felt, imagine how much more the Lions are at risk of “tailing off” for a good while once Franco Mostert - an especially heart-and-soul customer for them - Ruan Dreyer and Rohan Janse van Rensburg (already freed ahead of contractual time) make their now confirmed getaways.
Profoundly concerning rumours that Elton Jantjies, the flyhalf talisman of several years, Andries Coetzee and utility prop Jacques van Rooyen may also be overseas-bound would truly rip up the fabric of the present personnel at Emirates Airline Park.
The next few weeks for the Lions?
It’s last chance saloon for their much-trumpeted current “family”, alright, and they must somehow convert that very knowledge into a forceful tool in their favour between now and, ideally, August 4 ...
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