Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Lions remain fresh in many minds as gutsy bridesmaids of recent Super Rugby campaigns, considering their runners-up status in three years on the trot between 2016 and 2018 … but even that agreeably high status seems a bit beyond them nowadays.
Jaguares (a), Reds (h), Stormers (h), bye, Waratahs (a), Rebels (a), Blues (a), Highlanders (a), Chiefs (h), Sharks (h), Bulls (a), Sunwolves (h), bye, Sharks (a), Bulls (h), Crusaders (h), Stormers (a), Jaguares (h). Don’t play: Hurricanes, Brumbies.
Their record last season:
Fourth in SA conference, ninth overall (won eight, lost eight) … one spot shy of playoffs qualification.
Five potential strengths:
*The main overseas tour itinerary for the Lions – tough though it always is – doesn’t look too especially scary on paper as they skirt some of the traditionally more juggernaut teams of New Zealand and Australia. A programme of Waratahs, Rebels, Blues and Highlanders in that order offers at least some scope for a win or two.
*Spending so much time abroad in the first eight weeks (Argentina thrown in) means that the Lions play all of their remaining nine matches on South African soil, even if obviously not all at Ellis Park. So if they have managed to get up something of a head of steam by then …
*Depth, regrettably, is not a special hallmark of this rebuilding franchise, but one department where the opposite healthily applies is at prop, where “grand old man” infusion Jannie du Plessis will compete with the exciting Carlu Sadie for the tighthead anchorman job, and Dylan Smith and Sti Sithole cover the other side of the engine room with similar assuredness.
*Although they have also now shed the Swys de Bruin element of a once-treasured coaching alliance with Johan Ackermann, last season’s Currie Cup (when they were runners-up) suggested the Lions should keep their renowned “gees” – and capacity to prove doubters wrong – under Super Rugby first-timer as mastermind Ivan van Rooyen.
*There are few genuine superstars left on the books in Jo’burg, but the Lions do have a few young figures with the potential to suddenly “explode” in Super Rugby this year: names like Hacjivah Dayimani, Vincent Tshituka, Tyrone Green and Mannie Rass spring to mind.
Five possible snags:
*They caught them cold in Buenos Aires (25-16) when they played the identical fixture at the outset of last season, but can the Lions repeat that fine trick when they visit the Jaguares (last season’s losing finalists and SA conference winners, remember) first up? It must be considered doubtful … though at least they’ve got the trek across the Atlantic out of the way even if they return winless after round one.
*Playing away from the Highveld (and often overseas) so much in the first few weeks could be hazardous to the Lions’ quest to be up among the contenders from relatively early on … we have seen often enough before the detrimental effect on attendances in SA when a team looks dead in the water too quickly.
*For the first time in five or six years, the Lions have to make do this year without their one truly “Fear Factor” forward: Malcolm Marx. The rampaging, broad-shouldered hooker is on a one-season sabbatical (playing in less demanding Japan) and his are enormous boots to fill by Pieter Jansen, Jan-Henning Campher and company – nobody will be able to match him in pure grunt.
*Until former Ellis Park favourite Willem “Bone Collector” Alberts becomes available – he is recovering from a bicep injury – the Lions will labour with a perception that their loose forwards are too lopsidedly lightweight and of the “run-around” kind, especially with Warren Whiteley likely retired now and robust Cyle Brink already cruelly ruled out for months through another injury setback.
*The suspension since last season’s competition of livewire Springbok wing Aphiwe Dyantyi (alleged doping violation) does the Lions no extra favours at all in a climate where many former stalwarts have sought fresh pastures overseas. He should be coming into his peak time in rugby at 25 … instead the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2018 continues to kick his heels.
Fabulous, fair, or fallible?
Sport24 verdict: Fallible