Lions best of the rest

The Lions exceeded expectations in their comeback season, while the Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers all regressed, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Take a bow, Johan Ackermann. The Lions came into this year’s competition with a public ambition to be competitive and a private ambition to avoid the wooden spoon. They exceeded expectations on every front, finishing the league stage with seven wins and in 12th place.

That win total alone will ensure that the class of 2014 goes down in history. Their 34-10 hammering of the Stormers shouldn't be forgotten, nor their two victories against the Cheetahs, nor that resounding win against the Bulls.

It’s important to remember where the Lions were at this point last year. When I visited their HQ at Ellis Park in June 2013 to chat to Ackermann and Lions president Kevin de Klerk, I encountered two men who were more hopeful than certain of a brighter future.

They desperately needed the Lions to beat the Kings in the qualifying play-off series, and return to Super Rugby. And as Ackermann was at pains to stress, they needed to show why they belonged at the elite level. The odds be damned.

A year on, and the Lions have proved their point. There have been significant challenges, such as a number of injury setbacks – none more so than the one suffered by their inspirational captain and lone Springbok (at the time), Franco van der Merwe – and a first tour to Australasia for many of the players. They were forced to take those injuries in their stride, and predictably, they lost all four games Down Under.

They have had some luck if you remember the shocking refereeing decisions that helped them to big wins over the Blues and Reds. But more often than not, they have made their own luck.

It’s been patent throughout their campaign that they are a well coached side, as well as a tight family unit. This has allowed them to prevail against more fancied teams stacked with Test players. It’s a brilliant lesson for some of the more established teams, especially those in South Africa.

The Bulls and Stormers finished the season with same number of wins as the Lions. All three of these teams, as well as the Cheetahs, lost every one of their matches Down Under. And yet, the Lions’ seven from 16 record should be viewed in an encouraging light, considering they have comparatively few resources.

The Bulls qualified for the semi-finals in 2013, and would have progressed to the final if not for some poor decision-making in the penultimate game against the Brumbies. They too suffered some injury setbacks in 2014, but would have expected a better return than seven from 16.

Handré Pollard’s emergence has been a beacon of light in an otherwise dull and forgettable campaign. Victor Matfield’s leadership and unmatched lineout abilities has kept them competitive, but there is a lot that needs to change in that team and system if they are going to be a force in 2015.

As for the Stormers, it seems fitting that their campaign was bookended by two 34-10 defeats.

In their first game of the year, a team boasting seven Springboks as well as an Argentinian international in their match 23, went down to the Lions at Ellis Park. It was their biggest defeat since 2007, and would set the tone for one of their worst seasons ever.

Coach Allister Coetzee has blamed injuries at every opportunity. It is a weak excuse considering every team in the competition has had to contend with injuries. And it is also no excuse for a loss to the Super Rugby newcomers at Ellis Park, nor a zero from four return Down Under. It's been obvious that the Stormers have other issues aside from injuries.

The weakness of the Stormers coaching staff and administration has been well-documented on this website. The team stagnated in 2011 and 2012, and their regression in 2013 saw them missing out on the play-offs for the first time in three seasons. In 2014, the Stormers finished 11th on the overall log. Not since 2006 has the Cape side sunk this low in the standings.

Gert Smal was brought in as the new Western Province director of rugby at the end of March, and set about implementing some necessary changes. The Stormers have played with more balance since Smal joined the union, and his recent appointment of Vlok Cilliers as the team’s kicking coach should see the Cape side making an overdue improvement to their line kicking in 2015.

The Cheetahs played with balance in 2013, but have been all over the place in 2014.

They will remember the historic win over the Bulls in which Johan Goosen and Willie le Roux starred with some atypically tactical displays. These performances have been too few and far between, however, and their defence and discipline has been shocking. In 16 games, they conceded 527 points, 30 points more than the next worst team, the Reds.

The regression of the Bulls, Cheetahs and Stormers have been depressing to witness. The performances of the plucky Lions, however, has provided South African rugby supporters with a reason to smile, as has the Sharks’ progression to the play-offs.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images

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Jon Cardinelli