A Super Rugby title win for the Lions would provide long-suffering South African rugby fans with a reason to cheer, writes JON CARDINELLI.
It’s been nearly nine years since the Springboks last won the World Cup. It’s been seven since they captured the Tri-Nations crown, and six since any South African team bore the Super Rugby title aloft.
There have been moments when our optimism has been stirred, when certain teams have given us a reason to hope that the long trophy drought had finally come to an end. Sadly, on each and every occasion, those hopes have been dashed as the inferior South African teams in question have succumbed, more often than not, to superior New Zealand sides.
On Saturday, the Lions will have the chance to end a period of abject mediocrity that spans six long years. They will have the opportunity to record the first-ever playoff win by a South African team in New Zealand, and to prove that knockout victories are indeed possible in that part of the world.
To be fair, the Lions have already stoked the embers of our faith with a rousing regular-season performance that saw them finishing second in the overall standings. One needs to remember that at the beginning of the season the Lions were drawn in the Africa 2 conference and pitted against the five New Zealand franchises. The odds were against them advancing in this tournament. And yet, they never wavered in their belief that a more balanced game plan would earn them passage to the playoffs.
That spark of belief has become a blaze as they have progressed through the knockout stages. The Lions showed that they have the intelligence and composure to match their brawn and attacking intent in the quarter-final against the Crusaders at Ellis Park. They proved that that performance was no fluke when they produced another rounded display in the semi-final against the Highlanders, the 2015 champions.
The Lions won’t be favourites in the final against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday. In fact, to misquote the famous film series, their task is not Mission Difficult, but Mission Impossible.
The Lions will need to travel all the way to the New Zealand capital for the tournament decider after a long and taxing campaign. History shows that no South African team has managed to win a playoff match in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
So why do South Africans still believe that a win is within the Lions’ grasp?
In the wake of the victory against the Highlanders, fans across the country took to social media to declare their support. As I scrolled through the well-wishes and plaudits on Twitter, it became clear to me that the fans believe in the Lions’ brand of rugby, and are desperate for any sort of South African success.
It’s been a lean period as far trophies are concerned, and the average sports fan is desperate for silverware. And to be fair, on current form, the Lions stand a better chance of winning a playoff in New Zealand than the Boks do of ending their drought in the southern hemisphere’s premier international competition.
Some might say that the Lions have already busted a couple of myths. Over the past season, they have proved that a South African team can set the standard on attack (the Lions topped several attacking categories during the conference stage). They have shown that a solid kicking and defence game are necessary for success.
Johan Ackermann’s side has come a long way over the past three years. One would expect them to be better in 2017, when they are drawn against the five Australian sides and none of the New Zealand teams. Next year, there will be more pressure on this Lions side to succeed.
That said, the South African rugby community needs a meaningful win in 2016, and the Lions represent their best shot at a title. The Johannesburg-based franchise is 80 minutes away from making history. A win would give South African fans a reason to cheer.
It would be foolish to think that the Lions are on the brink of changing the game. As far as results are concerned, a Lions win this weekend would mean very little in the context of the greater New Zealand-South Africa rivalry. The Boks have lost seven of their last eight Tests to the All Blacks. In Super Rugby, the New Zealand sides have won 13 of the 20 titles on offer over the past two decades. Victory for the Lions this weekend would mark South Africa’s fourth title overall.
South Africa certainly needs it. The Boks’ 2015 World Cup campaign was a disaster. The recent Test series saw the national side recording another unwanted first in the form of historic home defeat to Ireland. Every South African Super Rugby team bar the Lions has been outclassed by Kiwi opposition in the 2016 tournament. The less said about the infighting at administration level, the better.
The Lions have already broken a series of franchise records in 2016. They have played a style of rugby that’s been easy on the eye and that's produced results.
It would make for a powerful story in the franchise’s history if they were to win in Wellington this Saturday. It would make for a rare good-news story in the South African rugby narrative if a local team was to win silverware.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images