Senior statesman Elton Jantjies insists the Lions have the experience and the quality in depth to push for the Vodacom Super Rugby title this season. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Have the Lions stagnated? Are they a team in decline?
These are the questions that followed the 38-17 loss to the Crusaders in last year’s Super Rugby final. The Lions, boasting a host of Springboks in their ranks, were outmuscled and outwitted by their Kiwi counterparts.
The Lions have been the best South African side on show for the past three seasons. Last year, however, they only managed to win nine out of 16 games during the regular season and went on to record five straight losses to New Zealand teams.
Since the final defeat in Christchurch, key players such as Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Dreyer and several others have opted to further their careers abroad. The Lions will go into 2019 with big ambitions, but without some big names, particularly up front.
More responsibility will fall to the senior players who are still with the franchise. Jantjies, who racked up his 100th Super Rugby cap for the Lions last year, believes that the team has the resources to challenge for the title in 2019.
‘You’re always going to miss players of that calibre,’ Jantjies told SARugbymag.co.za. ‘On the other hand, we still have a lot of players with more than 30 Super Rugby caps. Warren Whiteley, Malcolm Marx, myself, Lionel Mapoe, Andries Coetzee … I could go on. We won’t use a lack of experience as an excuse this season.
‘It’s an exciting time. There are a lot of new faces and the team as a whole is in great nick. We want to keep on building in terms of our game and culture.’
Coach Swys de Bruin opted to give a host of second-choice players a run in the recent warm-up fixture against the Vodacom Bulls in Pretoria. One would expect De Bruin to field a stronger side in the upcoming ‘Superhero Sunday’ event at the Cape Town Stadium on 3 February.
The Lions will take on the Sharks in the first fixture, while the Bulls will tackle the Stormers in the second.
The Lions boast a reputation for bold, attacking rugby. Much of their attacking success can be traced back to their set-piece supremacy, though.
The Lions were the leading mauling team in 2018. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain those high standards in 2019, now that several Bok tight forwards are no longer in the mix.
The team may also need to make some significant adjustments on attack.
‘There are a few things that we need to improve if we are going to succeed this season,’ said Jantjies, who played every minute of last year’s campaign.
‘Every year brings a new challenge. In 2019, defences will rush up a lot more to shut down the attack.
‘We’ve got to be prepared for that linespeed. We have faced it before. The Hurricanes shut us down effectively a few seasons back. We took some lessons from that, though, and adjusted accordingly. We must be prepared to do the same again.’
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