Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – If Lions coach Johan Ackermann has confirmed one
thing, it is that he is his own man, confident in his convictions and not
easily swayed by outside theory.
The sense I got in the lead-up to his keenly-awaited squad
choice for the log-leaders’ closing Vodacom Super Rugby fixture against the
Jaguares in distant, often gruelling Buenos Aires was that cerebral pundits
were tilting toward urging Ackermann to field something close to his best possible
combination – thus giving the franchise a much better prospect of hanging onto
key, top berth.
Of course I may have been subconsciously influenced in that
observation by my own suspicion that a significantly stronger starting team –
they have opted instead for a conspicuous “B-side” – would have been the
correct medicine, for all the hazards to be considered either way.
The Lions have a wonderful opportunity, and these do not
simply fall from the trees, to secure rights to a possible home final.
As pointed out in summary of last weekend’s Super Rugby
action, history is littered with the ugly wreckage of teams crossing the Indian
Ocean either way at a mere week’s notice to contest the (always one-sided) showpiece.
The Sharks have three times come a rather serious cropper (Auckland
1996, Canberra 2001, Hamilton 2012), whilst the same applies to the Chiefs
(Pretoria, 2009). So for continent-crossing teams the record in finals over
some two decades is blunt and simple: played four, lost four, points for 50,
points against 179.
If that doesn’t send out some major alarm bells, reminding
of the immense value of a home run into the final, I don’t know what else
By keeping virtually his entire A-troops cotton-wooled in
Johannesburg for the purposes of playoffs “freshness” (mind you, occasionally a
week off also sees returning teams look stale and imprecise in the competition a
week later) Ackermann has, quite obviously, significantly cranked up the risk
of failure against the Jaguares, who may feel miffed and thus especially
fired-up about taking on the “reserves”.
This opens the door invitingly for any one of four
still-challenging, highly dangerous New Zealand outfits to sneak ahead of the
Lions into top spot right at the death of ordinary season this weekend.
At least some part of Ackermann’s reasoning for keeping his
premier stars well away from the long-haul flight would have involved the
possibility – a long shot, but much stranger things have happened in sport – of
tight wins without bonus points by the Hurricanes over the Crusaders and
Highlanders over Chiefs in very appealing derbies on Saturday morning (SA
Such results would probably see the Lions hang onto loftiest
perch even if those two sides creep up to level with them, provided that their
“dirt-trackers” can avoid a nasty thumping in South America; the Lions’ points
differential is the best in the competition as things stand.
Naturally, however, the NZ teams – particularly the more
healthily-placed Chiefs and Crusaders, who will definitely nudge ahead with
victories – will hardly be bemoaning Ackermann’s selection policy, knowing full
well that a Jaguares triumph suddenly looks so much more feasible.
But here’s something else, in fairness, in Ackermann’s
defence: just how likely is that Jaguares win?
For all my surprise at the raw Lions combo chosen, something
particularly prevalent on the rookie-laden bench, they do retain a puncher’s
chance of winning anyway – and that would very swiftly make the coach’s move
seem like a masterstroke.
The Lions have a particularly healthy squad ethos, and many
times this season “fringe” players have slotted in wonderfully seamlessly,
whether as starters in times of injury and rotation or off the bench – the hope
will clearly be that Ross Cronje’s largely unsung XV on Saturday can muster
sufficient gees and nous to winkle
out a praiseworthy win.
As Ackermann’s loyal assistant Swys de Bruin pointed out this
week, they would be castigated, too, if they exposed a full-strength team to
duty in Buenos Aires and still came home beaten (and probably more than a bit
The Lions brains trust will also be only too aware that even
if they don’t finish top overall, advancement from a home quarter-final would
still mean a guaranteed home semi – and who is to say that any New Zealand team
timeously sneaking to top of ordinary season is automatically going to tee up
that coveted home showpiece?
So the final could yet be at Emirates Airline Park on August
A personal gut feel, though, remains that the Lions should
have fielded at least a few of their stalwarts against the Jaguares, instead of
opting for a senior stay-away from the trip en masse, which would have provided
greatly better insurance against a loss.
It is not as though too many of their ranks are on the point
of breakdown through weariness.
Several of their non-Springboks had a few weeks off
match-play very recently during the Test window period, whilst even some of the
Lions players in Allister Coetzee’s greater Bok squad against Ireland earned
only cameos at times as subs during that series – names like Franco Mostert,
Julian Redelinghuys and Jaco Kriel come to mind.
Then again, I have been subjected during this week to a
confident, deafening and defiant chorus from Lions fans on social media,
railing against my team-choice reservations: “In Ackies we trust!”
Here’s hoping, once the dust settles on Super Rugby 2016,
their loyalty and optimism have been fully rewarded …
Sylvian Mahuza, 14 Koch Marx, 13 Stokkies Hanekom, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11
Anthony Volmink, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronjé (captain), 8 Cyle
Brink, 7 Robert Kruger, 6 Stef de Witt, 5 Lourens Erasmus, 4 Martin
Muller, 3 Jacques van Rooyen, 2 Akker van der Merwe, 1 Corné Fourie
(two to be omitted): 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Clinton Theron, 18 Pieter
Scholtz, 19 Fabian Booysen, 20 Ruaan Lerm, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jacques
Nel, 23 Shaun Reynolds, 24 Bobby de Wee, 25 Ashlon Davids
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