Lions: Regrouping rosily for Super Rugby

    2017-10-16 16:10

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – An unpalatable thought might just have struck some Lions supporters in the early stages of this year’s Currie Cup: are we slipping backwards in broad terms after our successive close shaves as runners-up in Super Rugby?

    The earliest weeks of the increasingly diluted and maligned all-domestic competition –still an important preparatory environment for the bigger, multinational annual tournament – saw the Johannesburg-based franchise lose an ominous five of their first six matches.

    It was hardly a dream start in charge for Swys de Bruin, following his elevation to head coach as much-loved Johan Ackermann moved to Gloucester in the English Premiership and took his son, robust young loose forward Ruan, with him.

    At around the same time, of course, the Lions also surrendered scrumhalf Faf de Klerk to Sale Sharks and crowd-pleasing “impact” hooker Akker van der Merwe just down the proverbial drag to the SA-based Sharks.

    So it would have been understandable if some of the Emirates Airline Park faithful just began to wonder if there was a slight dimming of the light in the Big Smoke – a situation aggravated by that ropey old start to the Currie Cup.

    But De Bruin and his lieutenants, who have clearly kept a suitably unpanicked hand on the tiller, have stabilised things again to a point where the Lions not only look a decent enough bet for the Currie Cup title on October 28 – they are away to Western Province in a semi this weekend – but boasting the sort of squad strength and lustre to challenge fiercely once more for the Super Rugby silverware in a few months’ time.

    The Lions, in a complete statistical reversal of their record at the midway stage of round-robin play, have won five of their closing six fixtures, including a convincing 44-17 dismantling of the Cheetahs on Saturday to make sure they wouldn’t miss the last-four cut.

    Frankly, they seem barely less likely than the Sharks, the very comfortable log-toppers, to win the Currie Cup from this “cleaned slate” juncture, whilst the other semi-finalists, WP and the Blue Bulls, will feel they have a puncher’s chance as well.

    In recent years, the Lions’ quest for the domestic trophy – though they have still won it twice in the last six seasons – has been hampered a bit by bigger absenteeism than most other big domestic franchises as some of their players experience lucrative pre-Super Rugby stints in Japan and there is also the customary Currie Cup game-shy phenomenon among top Springboks.

    De Bruin has not been averse to blooding generous numbers of players from the Lions’ clearly vibrant under-21 ranks or just beyond it, and the policy seems to have been paying off recently, with a handful of them not only looking promising in the current competition but potentially adding gratifyingly to depth for the 2018 Super Rugby slog.

    Just for example, there have been hugely constructive showings either in fairly regular or more fleeting exposure from the likes of Marco Jansen van Vuren (21), Madosh Tambwe (20), Len Massyn (20) and the 22-year-old Aphiwe Dyantyi.

    Scrumhalf Van Vuren is an especially interesting case as he seems an early, new “Joost van der Westhuizen” in the making with his unusual height (1.88m) and sniping ability even through small gaps.

    If the lean kid from Vanderbijlpark can become two-thirds as good as the late Highveld legend, he’ll be massively useful.

    Meanwhile the assertive showing of Massyn, who doubles as an open-sider or No 8, in the key triumph over the Cheetahs also bodes well, given the possibility that the Lions begin next year’s Super Rugby still without injury-rehabbing senior loosies and Springboks Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel.

    Kinshasa-born wing Tambwe and wing-cum-centre Dyantyi also look full of enterprise and defence-penetrative ability, and should only get better as they develop over the next couple of seasons.

    Remember that despite the loss of previously-mentioned Ackermann, De Klerk and Van der Merwe from their playing staff, the Lions will retain the overwhelmingly majority of their more seasoned resources from the last two productive Super Rugby campaigns, including that emerging world star at hooker Malcolm Marx.

    Just as gladdening to Lions enthusiasts who watched the Cheetahs game on Saturday would have been the thunderous contribution of Cyle Brink, his first-team opportunities curtailed for two years by the presence of Ackermann, Whiteley and Kriel but still only 23 and a serious prospect as a blind-side flanker.

    He combines wrecking-ball qualities at close quarters with sometimes deceptive, blistering speed in open play, and his path may be clearer now for an extended run in the No 7 jersey.

    No doubt deeply mindful of what the sacrifice of diminutive De Klerk does to their scrumhalf depth, it is also a shrewd development that the Lions reportedly intend snapping up Ross Cronje’s present Bok understudy Rudy Paige from the Bulls – a new lease on life in Jo’burg could just suit the latter very well.

    Bridesmaids in both 2016 and 2017, these Lions clearly still fancy shifting a decisive bit closer to the Super Rugby altar next year rather than fading into mediocrity.

    A Currie Cup for the cabinet even before it? Beware of betting too heftily against it …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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