A mid-table finish for the Lions would mark an outstanding comeback to Vodacom Super Rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Consider where this franchise was 10 months ago. I visited Ellis Park to do a series of interviews for an investigative piece I was writing for SA Rugby magazine, and spoke at length with president Kevin de Klerk and coach Johan Ackermann. By the end of those interviews, I shared De Klerk's anger towards Saru's decision-makers, and also felt some sympathy for Ackermann, who at that stage was uncertain of his future as Lions head coach.
It was a sad time to be at Ellis Park, and a depressing time for Lions rugby. Their resources had taken a big hit with the Super Rugby relegation in 2012, and they faced further setbacks if they failed to qualify for the 2014 competition.
At the same time, they had to worry about what came after a possible reintroduction to Super Rugby, and how they could avoid the wooden spoon and possibly another relegation scenario. De Klerk and Ackermann were realistic about the Lions' chances. They expected to battle against international teams that boasted a number of Test players.
Ten months on, and the Lions are sitting at fourth on the Super Rugby log. They've already collected a few big scalps, beating the Stormers, Blues, and Reds, and are three from three at Ellis Park.
Nobody should expect the Lions to win the competition from here, but if they were to finish the season mid-table or even scrape through to the play-offs, it would mark a dramatic turnaround.
It's important that fans temper their expectations. It's important to remember where this team was less than a year ago, and how their struggles in 2013 will still limit their ability to succeed in 2014.
The long-term future is bright for the Lions. Unlike the Southern Kings in 2013, the Lions will not have to worry about a promotion-relegation battle at the end of a long and taxing Super Rugby season (as De Klerk and Ackermann initially feared). They will have a chance to build a team over the next few years and restore some real pride.
What we're witnessing in 2014 is just the beginning. And in the context of their struggles and setbacks in 2013, the Lions have already exceeded expectations in 2014.
The Kings went into the 2013 Super Rugby competition with a handicap, as Saru only confirmed their inclusion at the 11th hour. This impacted on their ability to contract players and attract a title sponsor. They succeeded in securing the latter four rounds into the 2013 tournament.
The Lions have faced similar challenges in 2014 with regards to player recruitment and sponsorship. The announcement earlier this year that no South African team would be relegated from Super Rugby is a significant boost to the Lions' long-term prospects, but will have little impact on their current season.
And this is why the Lions' efforts these past few weeks have been especially commendable. Like the Kings in 2013, they have defied expectations with what is a limited team. They have come together as a collective and take down several big names sides that are stacked with world-class individuals.
The Lions may score another upset victory when they play the Crusaders this Saturday. They have some capable forwards and in Marnitz Boshoff they certainly have a match-winning goal-kicker. The Crusaders are not the team they once were, and at Ellis Park, the Lions are certainly capable of getting the desired result.
Whether they can sustain these types of results and finish the league stage in the top six is another story. They've already lost one of their best players and leaders, Franco van der Merwe, to a long-term injury. The injury toll will climb as the season wears on, and the Lions' lack of depth is bound to be exposed.
They will also face a testing tour Down Under, not only in terms of the opposition (the Chiefs, Highlanders, Waratahs, and Force) but because so few of their players have toured Australasia before. It will take some time to adapt to the conditions and the pressure of playing overseas.
But if they continue to win at Ellis Park, they may indeed finish the season in a relatively good log position. Teams such as the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will be criticised if they fail to qualify for the play-offs this season, as all three have the resources and personnel to do so consistently. The Lions, at present, are not as well established as those teams. In that context, a mid-table finish for the Johannesburg side would be viewed as a big success.
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