The Lions are in a rebuilding phase following the loss of a number of stalwarts. JOHN GOLIATH takes a look at their 2020 prospects after they missed out on a playoff berth last year.
The Lions have essentially pressed the reset button after falling short of the Super Rugby playoffs last year. After making three consecutive finals, they suffered a massive player exodus and long-term injuries and ended the 2019 campaign with eight wins and eight defeats.
In the last two years they have also lost the two coaches who helped turn the union’s fortunes around, with Johan Ackermann leaving to coach in England and Swys de Bruin quitting because of personal reasons. Rookie coach Ivan van Rooyen has taken charge of the team for the new campaign, with star flyhalf Elton Jantjies has taken over the captaincy from Warren Whiteley, whose playing future seems uncertain.
The Lions have acquired the experience of veteran tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis, while the hard-running flank Willem Alberts also returns to Ellis Park after a move to the Sharks and a stint overseas. However, they will be without one of their best players – hooker Malcolm Marx, who is currently enjoying a working holiday in Japan.
But the Lions have some exciting rookies in their squad, especially in the backs. Tyrone Green was one of the standout players in last year’s Currie Cup, scoring some fantastic tries with his speed and skill from fullback. Up front, the powerful Carlu Sadie is back with the Joburg team, and will learn a lot from Dr Jannie.
The Lions have a rather difficult draw, but will play their last nine matches in South Africa, which could be crucial for sneaking into the playoffs.
Seniors they will depend on …
The maverick flyhalf remains the Lions’ key performer after leading them to three consecutive Super Rugby finals from the No 10 position. He will give that direction to the team and also bring a lot of energy that could have this young team make a splash in the competition.
The Springbok lock will have to shoulder a lot of responsibility up front, especially at lineout time in the absence of Whiteley. His experience is going to vital in a Lions pack that will miss Alberts in the first couple of rounds because of a bicep injury.
Others who can shine …
The former Paarl Boys’ High centre is a magnificent talent. He is an old-school outside centre with an outside swerve and the ability to break the line. He may have to wait for his turn to play, but is definitely a prospect for the future.
The flank started off as a ballroom dancer, but is now using that agility and athleticism on the side of the Lions’ scrum. Tshituka has an unbelievable work rate and a guy who doesn’t like missing tackles. He also has quick feet, which probably comes from his time doing the quick-step.