The Lions’ three outstanding wins in Australasia showed why they are a franchise on the rise, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Lions beat the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday to pick up their third win on the road. They have now equalled the best ever tour record by a South African franchise in Australasia.
It's a massive achievement, and one that will force many to reassess their view of the Johannesburg franchise. After all, you just don’t win three matches in that part of the world by fluke.
That being said, every player, coach, and stakeholder at the Lions must view this as the beginning of something special rather than an end in itself. The Lions need to build on their recent success. They won’t win the Vodacom Super Rugby tournament this year, but there's a strong chance that they will become genuine contenders in the near future.
The current side is a far cry from the rabble that wore Lions colours in the past. In 2007, there was some optimism around the side coached by Loffie Eloff, who beat the Highlanders and Crusaders at home before scoring two narrow wins against the Force and Reds in Australia. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Loffie’s Lions, who lost seven of their next eight and finished the tournament in 12th place.
The Lions were even worse under Dick Muir. In 2010, they lost all of their games and finished dead last, but what made that season especially memorable for all the wrong reasons was the fact the Lions conceded a whopping 585 points.
The Lions were more competitive under John Mitchell, but the team and the former All Blacks coach were never a good fit. While there were some positives to emerge from that collaboration, it was a relationship that was never going to last.
The opposite could be said of the current team and its coach, Johan Ackermann. The Lions have shown attacking intent over the past two seasons, but they have also shown a willingness to defend. Under Ackermann, they have a developed a pack that can compete against, and in some instances dominate, the best in the tournament. In Elton Jantjies and Marnitz Boshoff, they have two excellent goal-kickers, and two players who can alternate between the running and kicking game.
The Lions won seven matches in 2014. They’ve only won three to date this season, but it’s significant that those three results have come on their tour to Australasia.
Who could have predicted this a couple if years ago? I sat down with Ackermann in June 2013, to chat about his future as well as that of the franchise. He was not optimistic about either.
In that interview, Ackermann came across as a man who was passionate about the Lions brand and as a coach who would go to war for his players. But he was also realistic: he told me that a bunch of no-name brands would do well to avoid embarrassment when they returned from the wilderness in 2014. Ackermann said they couldn't expect to challenge the overseas teams that were stacked with Test players.
Against every expectation, they won seven of their matches. They beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and shocked the Stormers in Johannesburg in their first two matches. By the end of the season, they’d picked up notable wins against the Bulls, Reds and Blues.
The 2014 season was only the start, and 2015 should also be seen as part of the beginning. This Lions side has come from nothing. They haemorraged players when they were relegated from Super Rugby at the end of 2012. They were always expected to struggle in their first season back in the big time. But through their results and more importantly their performances, they have shown that they belong at this level.
This season, they didn’t enjoy such a good start in terms of results. However, when they have struck the right balance between running and kicking, they have prospered. When they have maintained their attitude and shape on defence they have looked a decent side.
They surprised a lot of people in New Zealand when they beat the Blues, and again when they rocked the Rebels. Neither of those teams are in particularly good form at the moment, but you have to credit the Lions for clinching the result.
And when you dissect the performances, you have to admit the Lions may have won by greater margins in Albany and Melbourne had they executed more efficiently. Indeed, in that game against the Rebels, they lost a man to the sin bin in just the fourth minute, and were forced to fight their way back into the game.
They were dominant in the clash against the Reds, and deserved the win. Any South African team would be ecstatic with three wins on tour, and for one of South Africa’s traditionally weaker teams, it's especially significant.
One would hope they continue to build on their relative success. If they can keep the core of this squad and management team together, they will become a real force in the years to come.
Photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images