Super Rugby preview: Lions

The Lions will go into the 2015 Vodacom Super Rugby season brimming with confidence.

Johan Ackermann has transformed the fortunes of the Lions during his time in charge, taking a group of players discarded from other unions and sculpting them into a tight-knit unit. The Lions recorded their best ever Super Rugby finish in 2014 and followed that up with a run to the Currie Cup final, where they won the admiration of many South African rugby supporters with their enterprising play and domination at scrum time.

There’s a lot to like about this Lions side. Up front, their scrum enjoyed the highest success rate (91%) in the competition last season, while their back row produced a Springbok in the form of Warren Whiteley and a Bok tourist in Jaco Kriel. Among the backs, Marnitz Boshoff will be tasked with keeping the pack marching forward, while Lionel Mapoe, Courtnall Skosan and new signing Sampie Mastriet all possess the skills to complement the Lions’ offloading game.

One area of concern for Ackermann – especially over a competition as gruelling as Super Rugby – will be their depth. While the Currie Cup helped them strengthen up front, with the emergence of flank Kwagga Smith and front rowers Armand van der Merwe and Ruan Dreyer, they remain short among the backs.

A repeat of last season’s success is well within their grasp and, if achieved, it would constitute another big step up for Ackermann’s ambitious side.

Another product of the Varsity Cup, Armand van der Merwe rose to prominence during the Lions’ run to the Currie Cup final, where his confrontational approach and stocky stature earned him the nickname ‘the Angry Warthog’. Deceptively quick over short distances, Van der Merwe is another of the Lions forwards who shows great hands in the tackle and the ability to find a teammate with a deft offload. He will have a fight on his hands this season if he is to claim the No 2 jersey, with Robbie Coetzee and the promising Malcolm Marx providing healthy competition. Coach Johan Ackermann has said he might be tempted to use Van der Merwe as an impact substitute, a role he performed to great effect during the latter stages of the Currie Cup. Whether from the start, or introduced in the final quarter, Van der Merwe has the skills to cause mayhem in the opposition defence and will be another attacking weapon in the Lions’ ever expanding arsenal of game breakers.

Marnitz Boshoff
was the standout player for the Lions during the last Super Rugby season, where his accuracy off the kicking tee and game-management skills helped propel them to a mid-table finish. A discard from the Bulls, Boshoff kept Elton Jantjies out of the side for much of 2014 and will start 2015 as the franchise’s first-choice flyhalf. He is an archetypal South African No 10 who provides balance to the Lions on attack, where his tactical acumen makes sure they play the game in the right areas of the field. Boshoff may not have the game-breaking ability of Jantjies or Handré Pollard, but he provides consistently composed performances from the pivot position. With a full Super Rugby season under his belt, Boshoff will start this season more assured and in the midst of a team growing in confidence. If he can continue to do the basics well, while adding some variation to his game on attack, Boshoff will have another influential season.

Luan Jacobs (Bulls)
Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Bulls)
Sylvian Mahuza (Leopards, loan)
Sampie Mastriet (Bulls)
Rudi Matthee (Pumas, loan)
Howard Mnisi (Griquas)
Luther Obi (Leopards, loan)
Mark Richards (Blitzboks)
Francois Robbertse (Leopards, loan)

Willie Britz (Cheetahs)
Michael Bondesio (retired)
Chrysander Botha (Exeter Chiefs, England)
JW Jonker (Cheetahs)
Charles Marais (EP Kings)
Franco van der Merwe (Ulster, Ireland)
Deon van Rensburg (retired)
Coenie van Wyk (Cheetahs)

7 – The number of matches the Lions won in 2014
91 – Their scrum success rate percentage (Rank 1)
8 – The number of drop goals they kicked, all by Marnitz Boshoff (Rank 1)
189 – The number of points Marnitz Boshoff scored (Rank 4)
206 – The number of lineouts they won on their own throw (Rank 3)
127 – The number of turnovers they won (Rank 5)
136 – The number of penalties they conceded (Rank 15)
1,380 – The number of carries they made (Rank 15)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App

The 2014 Super Rugby season was the Lions’ most successful since breaking away from the Cats in 2006

13 February vs Hurricanes (h)
21 February vs Sharks (a)
28 February vs Stormers (h)
7 March vs Blues (a)
14 Mar vs Crusaders (a)
20 Mar vs Rebels (a)
27 Mar vs Reds (a)
4 April vs Bulls (h)
11 April vs Sharks (h)
17-18 April BYE
25 April vs Cheetahs (h)
2 May vs Bulls (a)
9 May vs Highlanders (h)
16 May vs Brumbies (h)
23 May vs Cheetahs (a)
30 May vs Waratahs (h)
6 June vs Stormers (a)
12-13 June BYE

Won: 7 (44%)
Lost: 9

1996 – 10th
1997 – 5th
1998 – 12th
1999 – 11th
2000 – 4th (semi-finalists)
2001 – 3rd (semi-finalists)
2002 – 11th
2003 – 12th
2004 – 12th
2005 – 11th
2006 – 13th
2007 – 12th
2008 – 14th
2009 – 12th
2010 – 14th
2011 – 14th
2012 – 15th
2013 –  DNP
2014 – 12th
Note: Played as Transvaal in 1996 and 1997, and as part of Cats franchise from 1998-2005. Did not take part in 2013
Super 12 from 1996-2005, Super 14 from 2006-2010, 15-team Super Rugby from 2011

Warren Whiteley

Bulls preview
Cheetahs preview
Sharks preview
Stormers preview

Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images

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