Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - These are the reasons why I believe the Lions COULD stay right up among the hottest contenders for the Super Rugby 2019 title:
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Been there, (so nearly) done that
A lot of neutral Super Rugby-watchers will be egging on the Lions to achieve that really “feel good” story: overall trophy success after three instances in a row from 2016 to 2018 of being pipped at the post (or read: in the final).
While there may be a similarly well-stocked lobby harbouring a suspicion that their best chance may now have gone, especially with some torpedo-to-the-hull departures of stalwarts to other pastures, it might just be premature to suggest they are going to go noticeably backwards in 2019.
They still possess the fulcrum, let’s not forget - and it includes some exciting, fast-maturing youngsters - of the personnel who have driven their charge over the past handful of seasons.
Winning games rather more often than tasting defeat has become cultural, if you like, at Emirates Airline Park, and you can’t just buy that habit with the bread at the corner store.
A lot of their existing squad members have already shown that they have the required perseverance, determination and durability to prosper right up to - and then just as often through - the knockout phase.
Not unrelated to that last paragraph, the Johannesburg-based outfit have also looked the happiest, most harmonious and generally “driven” of all South African sides over the last few campaigns.
Evidence from last season suggests that the level of spirit first generated during Johan Ackermann's tenure in charge has been largely undimmed since Swys de Bruin's elevation to head coach.
Throw in the fact that they possess a renowned “people person” and sound motivator and inspirer as captain in Warren Whiteley - this will be his ninth Lions season in Super Rugby and sixth as skipper - and there is little reason to anticipate any dressing-room disharmony in 2019.
Several experienced players moving on hardly seems constructive ... but is there just the chance that the need for refreshment and younger legs in certain positions may give the Lions dangerous new, and more “secret” dimensions in certain senses?
Some shrewd acquisitions
The inconvenient exodus of some previously core players will naturally be discussed in the second instalment of this spotlight on the Lions, but give their administrators some due: they have snapped up a couple of players who will provide a semblance of rebalancing to their squad pool.
Clearly the one-cap Springbok and lanky former Sharks second-rower Stephan Lewies is enthusiastic about leaving a comfort zone, as he more or less put it, and trying the re-establish his Test credentials at a new franchise home. He is a just-turned 27, suggesting his best years might yet lie in front of him if he makes a suitable fist of things in the Big Smoke.
The Lions also added much-needed beef to their prop stocks by recruiting for 2019 the young, high-tonnage, low-centre-of-gravity tighthead Carlu Sadie: he is a promising talent indeed and was only really third in the pecking order at Newlands due to the presence of Bok stalwarts Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw.
Similarly, well-travelled Danie Mienie adds to their loosehead arsenal, behind fit-again marauder Dylan Smith: he has played for all of the Sharks, Cheetahs, Griquas and Toulouse in France.
Don’t forget that they will hope for overdue, uninterrupted service this season, too, from versatile back-three kingpin Ruan Combrinck, who has not exactly had best luck with injuries for two years or so.
Cerebral playing style
The Lions clearly haven’t been furthest-progressing SA side for all of the last three seasons without possessing the correct muti when it comes to brand of rugby.
More often than not, the pace and intelligence of their game (first under Ackermann and then his former right-hand figure De Bruin) has so clearly seemed in much nearer the same league as, for instance, the finest New Zealand franchises.
While hardly ignoring the still vital, physically-orientated parts of the game, the Lions have tended to steer pleasingly clear of predictable, ponderous, “bumper-car” hallmarks to their play ... including advocating a genuinely 15-man approach and allowing individuals to back themselves if they see that something may be on even if from a seemingly unfavourable angle or part of the field.
Sooner or later, you’d imagine other SA-conference sides are going to finally haul them in for progressive rugby methods; whether it is yet, though, remains to be seen over the next few months.
*NEXT IN SERIES: The Lions' shortcomings
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