Town - The Lions
are being heavily tipped to lose their third straight Super Rugby final on
They have never beaten the
Crusaders in Christchurch while the New Zealand outfit has been a cut above the
rest in this year's competition.
The Lions, though, do have the
muscle and grit up front with the likes of Malcom Marx, Kwagga Smith and Franco
Mostert operating, while they also possess attacking flair in abundance once
the ball gets to their backs.
There would be nothing sweeter
than an upset win for the Lions this weekend, but even if they fall short once more
they have further solidified their status as South Africa's premier
No South African team, not even
the Bulls of the late 2000s, has ever contested three Super Rugby finals in a row.
And while the change in competition
format may have something to do with that, there is no doubting that the Lions
have raced ahead of their South African counterparts in evolving and staying
competitive in the modern game.
It was a process that started all
the way back in November, 2012 after former coach John Mitchell had parted ways
with the union.
Back then, the Lions had hit rock
bottom after losing their place in Super Rugby for the 2013 season at the
expense of the Southern Kings.
Under the radar, Johan Ackermann
came in and steered the Lions into a new dawn through a series of seemingly
irrelevant exhibition matches in 2013.
Something had started in
Johannesburg, and when the Lions returned to Super Rugby in 2014 they were a
side determined to improve.
They finished a lowly 12th in the
standings that year, winning just seven of their 16 matches, but they moved up
to 8th in 2015 and just missed out on a playoff spot.
They have not looked back since,
and Ackermann guided them to final defeats in Wellington against the Hurricanes
and the Crusaders in Johannesburg in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
"It was never one man's
effort," Swys de Bruin, who
took over from Ackermann as coach at the start of 2018, said.
"It was inspired by a bunch
of brothers who believe the same thing.
"It started in November
2012. It was never about winning or losing at that stage, it was about changing
things for the better, trying to score tries and making a difference in the way
we play and in people's lives."
Stepping into Ackermann's shoes
would have been a daunting task for De Bruin, who has been an assistant at the
franchise since 2012, and things didn't always go according to plan.
At the end of regular season, the
Lions had already lost seven times.
"This season had its own
trials and tribulations and we had a lot of injuries at the wrong times,"
De Bruin explained.
"But all of those things
build massive character. It's that character that pulled us through."
For captain Warren Whiteley, Saturday's clash is the ultimate Super Rugby
While the 30-year-old missed last
year's final against the Crusaders and much of 2018 with injury, he remembers
the pain of going down to the Hurricanes in the 2016 showpiece.
He, like many others, has been a
part of the Lions revolution since the beginning.
"Patience is key. In our
first season in Super Rugby we won seven or eight games and we slowly worked
ourselves up, and then in that third season we started hitting our
stride," he said of the journey post-2012.
"The big thing was the
continuity we had, especially in South Africa where it's unheard of to keep a
team together for so long.
"That's indicative of the
culture that we have. The guys want to stay and they want to be a part of this
group. We just love what we do and this weekend is another huge
Bruin is hoping that the experience of playing in back-to-back finals over the
last two years will help the Lions this time around.
"There was a lot of emotion
attached last time and it was new for us over the last two years," he
"Most of this group was
involved in the past so it's a case of knowing what to expect ... we'll have to
bring our A-game and more."
Kick-off on Saturday is at 09:35 (SA
15 David Havili, 14 Seta
Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie
Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5
Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe
Substitutes: 16 Sam
Anderson-Heather, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete
Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan
Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton
Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga
Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1
Jacques van Rooyen
Substitutes: 16 Corne Fourie, 17
Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21
Dillon Smit, 22 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 23 Howard Mnisi