Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Following the more upbeat-angled first assessment, these are the reasons why the Lions could fall short of a fourth successive appearance in the Super Rugby final in 2019 (and possibly also not even boss the SA conference this year):
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No more 'Factor Franco'
Can there possibly have been a better, more consistent workhorse on the South African Super Rugby scene for the past few seasons than Franco Mostert?
It will seem eerie and discomforting to Lions enthusiasts, more particularly, but also other compatriots watching them this season not to witness the lean, motor-beat combatant at the very fulcrum of their pack.
Mostert is one of those individuals who seems to defy the sports scientists by playing, with unerring relish, seemingly absurd amounts of rugby annually ... yet is also fiercely resistant to coming off before the “full eighty” in any matches.
Now, after numerous campaigns with "Sous" driving, cleaning, jumping and tackling with enormous vigour for the Lions since 2014, he has left their books for a new chapter with Gloucester in England.
There is a strong, combined work ethic at Emirates Airline Park, where humility is also valued, and they can also still field a strong enough, Mostert-less lock pairing if injuries don’t wreak significant havoc during the 2019 roster: Marvin Orie is coming on in leaps and bounds whether in a No 4 or 5 jersey, especially when he curbs hot-headed moments.
But boy, the Lions WILL still miss their Mossie ...
Again, the just-discussed Mostert is naturally a major part of this concern.
But the franchise’s bleeding of big names between Super Rugby seasons to overseas clubs includes all of loosie tearaway Jaco Kriel, bustling midfielder Rohan Janse van Rensburg, and two yeoman props in under-rated Jacques van Rooyen and sometimes Bok tighthead Ruan Dreyer.
All of them still with plenty of gas left in the rugby tank, this near-mass emigration is a blow of no small magnitude.
While the Lions, as mentioned in more upbeat part one of this survey, can now fast-track the development of a few promising young players to begin to make up for the drawback, there is also no substitute for rich experience in Super Rugby squads.
They are also going to feel even greater pain in some positions – perish the thought that superhuman hooker Malcolm Marx were suddenly to be stripped from their necessarily remodelled front row, for instance - if injuries hit them notably hard.
Risk of back-foot start to campaign
It is never that easy to play catch-up in Super Rugby.
But that is what the Lions could just be doing even before round three comes along: they begin with two relative stinkers (at least on paper) in the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and then Stormers in an appealing, already potentially high-stakes derby at Newlands.
While the next trio of games (Bulls, Jaguares again, and Rebels) are all reassuringly in Jo’burg, they could be sitting at nought from two ahead of that little stretch.
The first fixture in distant South America might not seem too formidable, considering that the visitors are last season’s tournament runners-up and the "Pumas in disguise" ended last season’s competition in unremarkable, mid-table seventh overall.
But that is not taking into account the Lions’ bleak track record in Buenos Aires: they have lost all of their three fixtures there since the Jaguares joined the competition: 49-35 last year, 36-24 in 2017 and 34-22 in 2016.
A shift in the trend would be an enormous tonic for the Lions ahead of their similarly perilous Capetonian date with the Stormers.
Another drawback in broad rostering terms for the Lions is that their main, three-match overseas leg includes real toughies in both the defending champion Crusaders and the Chiefs in New Zealand (Brumbies across the ditch first up).
Shortage of 'grunt' at loose forward
On the plus side, the Lions possess some of the most crowd-thrilling, athletic and game-breaking loosies of all local franchises.
Just for example, the starting trio they named for the Super Hero Sunday pre-season festival at Cape Town Stadium was captain Warren Whiteley at No 8, former SA Sevens favourite Kwagga Smith as open-side tearaway and the rangy young Hacjivah Daymani, still only 21, at No 7.
But the last-named player, for all his roaming ability and enviable skills set, is no traditional blindside flanker - a role that often enough demands a tight-playing, physical bruiser like a Pieter-Steph du Toit or Jean-Luc du Preez, especially on slow, heavier surfaces.
There it really seems "Cyle Brink or bust" for the Lions this year, especially as versatile lock-cum-flanker Lourens Erasmus has cruelly succumbed to long-term injury already and the afore-mentioned Mostert (certainly no slouch whenever he swaps five for seven) is no longer available to the cause.
Remember that it wasn’t too long ago, either, that the Lions could still boast another strapping young enforcer in Ruan Ackermann on the blindside flank, although he is now firmly ensconced in his new life at Gloucester.
You do need some balance to your loose trio, and the Jo'burg side somehow seem far better stocked in run-around men than they do big units with natural mongrel there.
It may not be a problem some of the time; it could be at others.
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