The Golden Lions have continued to expand their group of core players during the Currie Cup, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
There's a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Ellis Park this season. A young side, exceeding expectations, with a talented coach at the helm, 2014 has been a good year for the union. It could yet get better as we head toward the business end of the Currie Cup, but there is no doubt that the Lions, in any guise, are on an upward curve.
Earlier this year, the Lions embarked on their most successful Super Rugby campaign to date. While Johan Ackermann and his team earned stellar reviews, the overseas leg of the tour was less than favourable. Super Rugby is a tough examination on a squad's depth, and the Lions came up short, losing all four of their matches in Australasia.
In this regard, Ackermann must be pleased to see young players like Jaco van der Walt and Kwagga Smith playing themselves into Super Rugby contention.
'We've got a number of players who are going to be part of our plans [for Super Rugby]. It's a great position to be in,' admits Ackermann.
'We’ve got four quality loose forwards at the moment in Warwick Tecklenburg, Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel and Kwagga Smith. Between those four, you must choose two to start, with one or two on the bench. It’s tough because there’s always going to be someone who has reason to be unhappy.'
In the front row, Ruan Dreyer has shown himself a more than capable deputy to Julian Redelinghuys at tighthead prop, while hooker Armand van der Merwe has been a revelation in recent weeks. With Robbie Coetzee still to return from injury, and Willie Wepener and Junior Springbok Malcolm Marx on the books, the Lions seem well covered at hooker.
Further afield the Pumas have performed above expectations, with a number of the Lions Super Rugby players building on the form they showed earlier this year.
As the Currie Cup heads towards its conclusion, Ackermann is aware of the need to manage his players and keep them at optimum levels heading into the play-offs. It's a difficult balancing act, and one that has caught out many a Currie Cup coach in the past.
'The next two weeks will determine that [if players will be rested]. If we can keep the momentum and pick up two more wins, then perhaps we can look at resting a couple players in the final round.'
'Up until then, we’ll try choose our best team week by week, because we still need to secure our semi-final spot.'
Ackermann's side is currently engaged in a battle for top spot with Western Province. The Cape side got the better of them at Newlands earlier this season, while the Lions were able to turn the tables at Ellis Park. Both teams are unbeaten at home this season, making the top spot on the log even more important.
'It would be massive for us to have a home final, but that’s out of our hands,' said Ackermann. 'We just need to keep on winning and putting the pressure on them. But once you reach the knockout stages, anything can happen. We saw it last season with the Sharks, so we'll take hope from that.'
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