• Super Rugby preview: Lions

    The Lions will be serious play-off contenders in 2016, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

    After losing the first three games in their 2015 campaign, the unheralded Lions proved to be one of the real surprise packages last season. Johan Ackermann’s ambitious troops went on to win nine out of their next 13 matches, while drawing one. This included three victories overseas as the Lions ultimately finished in eighth position on the overall log, and second in the South African conference.

    They then enjoyed the perfect Currie Cup season, winning 12 games in succession as they embraced an attractive brand of rugby on their way to clinching the domestic trophy. With a dynamic pack laying the foundation up front for a fearless backline, the Lions will be determined to translate their Currie Cup success into another competitive Super Rugby campaign.

    Although Ackermann has said they will be starting with a clean slate, he also acknowledged that all the necessary building blocks were in place, with his talented charges effectively heading into their third year together as a group. Continuity has been identified as key to their success, with player depth having often previously been a cause for concern over the course of a lengthy Super Rugby season.

    However, with the Lions having developed their leadership and player depth during an impressive 2015 season, the team from Johannesburg can no longer be taken lightly.

    FORWARD TO WATCH
    Jaco Kriel enjoyed a stellar Currie Cup season, with the 26-year-old touted by many as a Springbok-in-waiting. His speed, strength and dynamic ball-carrying ability has even caught the eye of the Blitzboks, with Kriel included in the expanded sevens squad for this season. While it means he could miss some Super Rugby action, the majority of his time will be spent in the Lions’ set-up, and his presence will be key to their cause. Kriel was entrusted with the Lions’ captaincy during their Currie Cup campaign, and he certainly proved to be an inspirational figure alongside the likes of Warren Whiteley and Marnitz Boshoff. Kriel ended the domestic season as the top-ranked player in terms of turnovers won (11) and defenders beaten (18), while he also scored six tries. The challenge for him will be to carry that form over into Super Rugby, where opposition defences are sure to present a completely different proposition.

    BACK TO WATCH
    Elton Jantjies established himself as South Africa’s form flyhalf during the 2015 season, with the 25-year-old coming of age. After rather unfortunately missing out on World Cup selection, Jantjies has spent a spell in Japan, but will return to the Lions for Super Rugby action. The competition between Marnitz Boshoff and Jantjies will be healthy for the Lions, but it’s the latter who’s likely to have first rights to the No 10 jersey once he’s settled back into the Lions’ camp. Jantjies has matured immeasurably as a player, with his natural running game remaining his major strength, and proving to be ideally suited to the Lions’ style of play. His strong passing game and ability to take the ball flat and to the line gives momentum to the Lions’ backline, and creates confusion among opposition defences. Jantjies’s defence has also improved, while his kicking game is nothing to be scoffed at. He has developed into a superb all-round player, and his influence is sure to be a key factor if the Lions are to be successful in 2016.

    PLAYERS IN
    JW Bell (Pumas)

    PLAYERS OUT
    Alwyn Hollenbach (retired)
    Lohan Jacobs (released)
    Mark Pretorius (released)
    Mark Richards (Kings)
    Schalk van der Merwe (Montpellier)

    2016 FIXTURES
    27 February: Sunwolves (a)
    5 March: Chiefs (a)
    12 March: Highlanders (a)
    19 March: Cheetahs (h)
    25-27 March: BYE
    1 April: Crusaders (h)
    9 April: Sharks (a)
    16 April: Stormers (h)
    23 April: Kings (a)
    30 April: Hurricanes (h)
    6-7 May: BYE
    14 May: Blues (h)
    21 May: Jaguars (h)
    28 May: Bulls (a)
    BREAK FOR JUNE TESTS
    2 July: Sharks (h)
    8 July: Kings (h)
    16 July: Jaguars (a)

    PREVIOUS LOG FINISHES
    Super Rugby
    1996: 10th
    1997: 5th
    1998: 12th
    1999: 11th
    2000: 4th (semi-finalists)
    2001: 3rd (semi-finalists)
    2002: 11th
    2003: 12th
    2004: 12th
    2005: 11th
    Super 14
    2006: 13th
    2007: 12th
    2008: 14th
    2009: 12th
    2010: 14th
    Super Rugby
    2011: 14th
    2012: 15th
    2013: DNP
    2014: 12th
    2015: 8th
    Note: Played as Transvaal in 1996 and 1997, and as part of Cats franchise from 1998-2005. Did not take part in 2013

    2015 RECORD
    Won: 9 (60%)
    Lost: 6
    Draw: 1

    2015 NUMBERS THAT MATTER
    41 – Penalty goals kicked (Rank 3)
    19 – Penalty goals missed (Rank 1)
    152 – Points Elton Jantjies scored (Rank 6)
    26 – Try assists (Rank 6)
    310 – Defenders beaten (Rank 7)
    292 – Kicks from hand (Rank 13)
    250 – Missed tackles (Rank 14)
    Source: Vodacom Rugby App

    FAST FACT
    Lions No 8 Warren Whiteley made 227 tackles last season, the most in the tournament

    FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER
    Warren Whiteley
    @WarrenWhiteley

    OTHER SA PREVIEWS
    Bulls preview
    Cheetahs preview
    Kings preview
    Sharks preview
    Stormers preview

    VIDEO: New Super Rugby format explained using Lions as example

    Photo: Anne Laing/Gallo Images

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    Craig Lewis