Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The next two years … or bust.
That’s my assessment of the drive for possible South African title success in Vodacom Super Rugby, something that has not occurred since the third Bulls triumph in faraway 2010 and looks like being horribly more elusive to all our teams from 2018 onward.
Further, the country’s chances of bragging rights in the tight period suggested lie quite overwhelmingly, unless another compatriot outfit suddenly start playing right out of their skins, in the hands of the Lions.
The Johannesburg franchise have fared marvellously well this season, comfortably exceeding the expectations of many observers - including this one, I readily admit - and top the overall standings with only two rounds of ordinary season to go.
In a rare fillip for SA rugby in general during otherwise worrisome times, the maths is tantalising and relatively simple as things stand: earn full-house victories against the Kings (home) and Jaguares (away) over the next two weekends and Johan Ackermann’s charges will have teed up rights to a home final if they can safely negotiate the earlier knockout play also on most beloved Highveld terrain.
All of the remaining challenges on the route still require some doing, let’s not forget, although the combination of an amazing squad ethic, very evident harmony, determination and enlightened calibre of play gives them a fighting chance of lifting the trophy from here.
But even if the Lions do come up just a little short in 2016, they seem extremely willing and intelligent learners and it is entirely feasible that they will emerge even stronger contenders next season.
I say that fortified by the knowledge that, unless there are some nasty new “exodus” curveballs to come at Emirates Airline Park in the next few weeks or months, the critically settled nature of their broader squad looks like staying pretty undisturbed for 2017.
Under Ackermann’s astute guidance, the Lions’ development has been patient yet discernibly ongoing for some two or three years, and at the time of writing the only current, regular first-teamer bidding farewell once the dust settles on the 2016 season is that admirable second-row motorbeat figure Franco Mostert (to France, although even this does not appear entirely cast on stone yet).
They will feel the remarkably injury-free and enduring Mostert’s absence … naturally.
But then again, witness how they performed minus their popular regular captain Warren Whiteley in the relative demolition of the Sharks on Saturday and you are reminded how capably and tenaciously they are able to rally when some kind of setback in the personnel department occurs; coach Ackermann has deftly bred a second, confident wave of talent within the ranks.
The Lions seem geared for immensely better stability in their fold next year than the other major franchises in the SA landscape; remember that the Stormers will need to regroup from the departures of men like Schalk Burger (a Newlands colossus for almost a dozen years), Vincent Koch, Jean Kleyn and Nic Groom, the Bulls will shed Marcel van der Merwe, Lappies Labuschagne, Deon Stegmann and Grant Hattingh, and the Sharks Marcell Coetzee, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Joe Pietersen and Kyle Cooper.
For the three sides in question, those defections will require further, rather deflating degrees of “rebuilding” - and that very word is so seldom synonymous with immediate trophy success.
Just as the Currie Cup, until quite recently, had become a quite useful breeding ground for Super Rugby players in the following year, now we are depressingly seeing Super Rugby itself effectively become the trial ground for widespread capture of South African players – increasingly regardless of age or level of experience – by cash-flush northern hemisphere clubs.
Unless there is a sudden policy change on overseas recruitment in France, for instance, or the rand unexpectedly rallies to a profound degree, the drain on SA talent will only accelerate, making it less and less likely that the country will be able to feature even one truly credible challenger for the Super Rugby overall honours in the longer-term future.
So for me it’s the Lions, either this year or next, to have one last proper sniff at the honours before they, too, inevitably begin to break up a “family” of players and probably even shed their highly-regarded mentor Ackermann to some fresh post elsewhere.
It is not ideal that the likes of Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Elton Jantjies, Warwick Tecklenburg and Lionel Mapoe will be doubling up soon by having stints in Japan, meaning they will arrive back for Super Rugby 2017 dangerously overplayed from what would previously be a treasured and very necessary off-season.
But beggars can’t be choosers and at least Lions fans will be deeply gratified just to see them back in the fold.
On the plus side, too, remember that next year the vibrant, zesty side from the Big Smoke will have an easier fixture allocation on paper than this one, as they will play Australian rather than New Zealand teams in ordinary season.
So the Lions have two genuinely attractive stabs – 2016 and 2017 – at getting the engraver busy in their favour.
Any South African pickings in Super Rugby may be very, very lean indeed.
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