Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Smack at the height of their powers over the last three seasons, when they reached every Super Rugby final, the Lions visited the Stormers in April 2017 for a keenly-anticipated Newlands clash between respective group pace-setters.
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It was the time of two “Africa” conferences in the frequently-adjusted competition, and the Lions went on to top one and their Cape rivals the other.
The Stormers fancied their chances for the meeting: their engine room, as it still does, boasted hardened Springbok figures in Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe and an emerging Bongi Mbonambi.
But they were crucially out-grunted, if that is the right term to use, on the day by a committed, murderously physical and intense Lions eight - despite the Jo’burgers boasting fewer superstar names on paper up front.
On Saturday, the boot was significantly on the other foot when the 2019 Lions hosted the Bulls in another grudge derby: the visitors from Loftus established a decisive stranglehold on the forward battle that ensured a lopsided share of both possession and territory in their favour and went a massive way to explaining the slightly unexpected gulf (30-12) in the final score-line.
The Lions were simply not able to strike up their constructive, highly-rated attacking game; it was a classic strangulation job by the Bulls.
But perhaps it is educative to examine the vast changes in personnel between that commanding Lions pack of two years ago and the one that was bashed into submission by different domestic foes on Saturday.
There is only one common denominator from the pair of games: Malcolm Marx, the brilliant, robust Springbok hooker who happened to play a rare second fiddle in his personal tussle (to on-fire veteran Schalk Brits) at Emirates Airline Park.
But as many as six of the members of that Lions forward unit from their Newlands near-demolition (29-16) of the Stormers have now sought different employment pastures: both props, Jacques van Rooyen and Ruan Dreyer, both locks, Franco Mostert and Andries Ferreira, and two of the loose forwards, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Ackermann.
A third, still critical element of the Lions’ back row, popular captain and Springbok No 8 Warren Whiteley, was a wince-inducing absentee through injury last weekend, and will remain so for a few more weeks. (They are also missing perhaps their most physical current loosie, similarly crocked blind-side flank Cyle Brink, and promising, sometimes truculent lock Marvin Orie.)
Ferreira, a particularly beefy second-row specimen who really stood up in that 2017 fixture, has just been confirmed as having signed for the Hurricanes in New Zealand after some uncertainty in pre-season about his intentions for 2019.
That is a serious, collective haemorrhaging of steely forward personnel ... add in the unfortunate no-shows at present by Whiteley, Orie and Brink and it is not hard to see why the Lions have a look of vulnerability that is reflected in two losses from their first three matches.
In short, they have a depth problem - at least in terms of proven, experienced players - and if it is becoming evident already at such a fledgling stage of a lengthy campaign, a danger may well exist that it is only aggravated as the weeks grind on.
So perhaps it is unrealistic to envisage the 2019 crop reaching a remarkable fourth showpiece presence in a row, let alone actually win the final?
The Lions do not lack youthful stars-in-waiting or the structures to bring through more of them, but it may take a bit of time for certain of them to mature into customers capable of slugging it out at a consistently high level in the trenches for several months to have a further crack at the ultimate prize.
It is also worth pointing out that “one from three” is not a train smash: the mighty Crusaders, just as one notable example, once had a reputation for being slow starters, a phenomenon that often enough hasn’t prevented them from storming to the silverware.
For what it’s worth, I still believe it is not impossible that Swys de Bruin’s charges - who face the Jaguares in the Big Smoke on Saturday and should do enough to stabilise themselves on the table against an outfit with a poor record in South Africa - could emerge top dogs from the SA conference.
The group looks extremely fluid already, as I suspected it might in my pre-season thoughts, and there are still plenty of quality players in the Lions’ ranks with the advantage of knowing what is required to get through the ordinary-season “marathon” stage and then prosper deep into the knockouts, too.
Remember that they had difficult times during 2018, too, as the red-and-whites lost as many as seven matches ahead of the finals series but still got things right at pivotal times to march to the showpiece.
Never under-estimate the renowned Lions dressing room “gees” which quite possibly eclipses that of other South African franchises, too.
But many of the Ellis Park faithful will probably endorse this observation with some enthusiasm: they need Messrs Whiteley (especially), Orie and Brink fit again with some stealth, and a minimum of further sicknote setbacks as the season progresses ...
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