Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Strong
grapevine talk that Jaco Kriel, one of the critical figures in the Lions’ Super
Rugby vitality of the last two seasons, will leave for Gloucester after one
further campaign in the southern hemisphere competition only increases the urgency
for them to bag the title in 2018.
mounting that the next few months may provide their make-or-break opportunity
to claim the silverware, before a more pronounced breakup of the side former
head coach Johan Ackermann painstakingly nurtured ahead of his switch to the
English Premiership club Kriel now looks very likely to be plucked away to.
are successive Super Rugby runners-up for 2016 and 2017, having fallen at the
showpiece hurdle each time, first to the Hurricanes away and then earlier this
year to the Crusaders, more gallingly in their Johannesburg den.
by still having a healthy nucleus of the personnel who have spearheaded their
impressive crack at the overall honours for two years – continuity is so often
a most handy ally – the Lions should be firmly thereabouts again, at the very
their squad will have learned vital lessons from successive seasons of
stumbling at the final hurdle, and only have increased both their street-smartness
and pure determination to go all the way in 2018.
field, a key to their health or otherwise in the new season will naturally be
how competently Swys de Bruin fares in his maiden season as a Super Rugby head
coach after previously serving as Ackermann’s trusted deputy.
He headed up
the Golden Lions’ Currie Cup 2017 campaign in the immediate aftermath of last
season’s Super Rugby and, minus many of the players who front their challenge
in the broader southern-hemisphere competition, they ended as acceptable enough
third-placed side on the table and beaten semi-finalists.
terms, his Super Rugby 2018 ideology is unlikely to differ too violently from
the Ackermann one the playing staff had got increasingly, agreeably
On the plus
side, too, players who succumbed to long-term injury last season like
inspirational captain Warren Whiteley and lively wing/fullback Ruan Combrinck
ought to return well refreshed for a big push for the elusive title.
Throw in the
presence of other established Jo’burg favourites like Elton Jantjies, Courtnall
Skosan, Andries Coetzee, Harold Vorster and Ross Cronje, plus virtually every
member of their frontline tight five – including the now genuinely world-class
hooker Malcolm Marx – and Lions enthusiasts have good reason to expect largely
“normal service” again in 2018.
If any of
the stellar New Zealand franchises, for instance, were offered two current
Lions players to bolster their own teams, I would suggest they’d target the
juggernaut Marx first … and then Kriel.
Which is why
it is so important that the Highveld outfit try to cash in to the maximum on
the dynamic loose forward’s eighth (he debuted in 2011) and probable last season
of Super Rugby for them.
their fairly prolonged status as a top-tier force in the competition and also
one of the most watchable, enterprising outfits, Kriel has been a pivotal
element to their strike plans.
mobility is worth gold both on defence, where he is a committed track-backer of
note, and attack as he is akin to the sprightliest of backline players for
ball-carrying stealth, offloading skills and ability to punch wicked holes.
Just as he
was confirming his international value for the Springboks in the last Test
season, Kriel fell victim to a shoulder injury during the Australasian leg of
the Rugby Championship, requiring surgery.
expected to keep him sidelined for the first handful of rounds of the new Super
Rugby campaign, but the 28-year-old dynamo will return to duty in good time for
the height of their programme.
stepped in, relatively seamlessly, as acting captain when Whiteley was ruled
out of the climax of the 2017 competition, only underlining the extent to which
he is a fulcrum player for the Lions.
denials from his management, it is impossible not to suspect significant fire
accompanying smoke when it comes to the reported rumours this week that Kriel
will be seduced into the Gloucester fold – probably in time for the 2018/19
northern season? – by former mentor Ackermann, who has already taken son Ruan
with him in a further move that doesn’t exactly aid the Lions’
He is at
exactly the phase of his professional career, in age terms, where South African
players are especially likely to want to beef up their incomes in weightier
currencies than ours.
And if Kriel
does swap hemispheres on inevitably lucrative terms, what price certain other
Lions stalwarts also going to Gloucester specifically (coaches will always be
attracted toward “who they know”), or clubs elsewhere in Europe, after the 2018
Super Rugby season?
I just pick
up a strong sense that the spine of the present Lions squad, who have grafted
so hard to become title-threat material, may be snapped after one last stab at
are some decent prospects in their very early twenties coming through at
Emirates Airline Park, but other teams across the Super Rugby spectrum will
have spirited next-generation plans of their own and we can’t be at all sure that
the likes of Madosh Tambwe, Marco Jansen van Vuren and Len Massyn will
eventually turn out to be Super Rugby “gold”.
another thought: even before you begin to assess the likely strength in the
short- to medium-term future of Super Rugby teams from “across the ditch”,
there’s a good enough chance back home that the Sharks and Stormers,
especially, are poised to narrow or even eliminate the gap on the Lions.
that there is now, in a more streamlined competition, only one South African
conference to aim to top in ordinary season -- not the relative luxury of two
that marked each of the last two campaigns – for a healthy knockout seeding.
consider is the phenomenon, especially prevalent in the Lions set-up, of
players spending the South African off-season (a period when physical and
mental rest and rejuvenation is the ideal) earning very useful top-up wages in
Japanese club rugby.
Say what you
like about lower intensity there and so on, round-the-clock rugby will,
eventually, take a damaging toll.
in 2018, Lions, while there is still sufficient heat to that iron …
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing