Joburg’s pride are hoping for a case of third time lucky, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
The Lions blew a golden opportunity to secure a historic Super Rugby title when they slipped to a 25-17 defeat against the Crusaders at Ellis Park in the 2017 final. A red card to influential flank Kwagga Smith in the first half certainly didn’t help their cause, but it was a microcosmic illustration of the fact the Lions lacked the necessary composure in that highly anticipated title decider in Johannesburg.
It remains to be seen whether there will be any hangover from that disappointment – which followed a loss to the Hurricanes in the 2016 final – while the Lions have also bid farewell to inspirational coach Johan Ackermann, who joined English club Gloucester. Swys de Bruin’s elevation to head coach has been a natural one, but he will face a big job in motivating his troops once again to overcome the final hurdle.
The good news is the Lions’ squad has remained largely intact, but they have lost versatile loose forward Ruan Ackermann and pocket-rocket scrumhalf Faf de Klerk to English clubs, while a number of top players will miss a large portion of pre-season preparation due to commitments at their Japanese clubs. The Lions will also be hoping that captain Warren Whiteley hits the ground running after an extended layoff due to a serious groin injury suffered during the Boks’ June 2017 series against France.
Beneficially for the Lions, six of their first eight matches will be played at home. They then have a bye, before heading on a four-week tour to Australasia.
That’s sure to be a key mid-season period for the Lions, and should they collect a handy tally of log points overseas, there’s every reason to believe they could put themselves in a favourable position to book home-ground advantage in the playoffs again.
FORWARD TO WATCH
Malcolm Marx elevated his game to a whole new level in 2017, with the abrasive hooker playing a key role for the Lions in Super Rugby, before establishing himself as the incumbent Bok No 2. Marx saved his most memorable Test performance for when the Springboks took on the All Blacks in Cape Town, but his aim for 2018 will be to add consistency to his immense raw talent. He has made considerable improvements to set-phase play, but his lineout throwing remains shaky. Nevertheless, Marx boasts pace and power, while his strength at the breakdown harks back to the days when he played on the flank. Having said that, Marx is only 23, and there is every reason to believe he will go from strength to strength, with the Lions sure to benefit from the international experience he gained last year.
BACK TO WATCH
Rohan Janse van Rensburg has set his sights on ensuring 2018 is a year to remember. After an unforgettable 2016 season that saw him star for the Lions before going on to earn his first Test cap, he endured personal and professional challenges last year, and eventually opted to take up a short-term stint with the Sale Sharks in England. Speaking to SARugbymag.co.za before heading abroad, Janse van Rensburg said he was determined to ensure his spell overseas would serve to help him become an even better all-round player before returning to the Lions for a Super Rugby campaign he hopes will reignite his Bok ambitions. He knows he will face stiff competition from fellow inside centre Harold Vorster, but he certainly won’t be lacking for motivation as he heads into a crucial campaign.
After starring for the University of Johannesburg in the Varsity Cup last year, talented utility back Aphiwe Dyantyi proved he has all the raw talent to be a surprise package in his first Super Rugby season.
The Lions will lament the loss of Ruan Ackermann, who moved to Gloucester with his dad last year. With the ability to play lock, flank or No 8, the 21-year-old’s all-round value will be sorely missed.
Jacobie Adriaanse, Cyle Brink, Robbie Coetzee, Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Ross Cronjé, Ashlon Davids, Hacjivah Dayimani, Ruan Dreyer, Aphiwe Dyanti, Willie Engelbrecht, Lourens Erasmus, Andries Ferreira, Corne Fourie, Rhyno Herbst, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Marco Jansen van Vuren, Elton Jantjies, Johannes Jonker, Jaco Kriel, Robert Kruger, Sylvian Mahuza, Lionel Mapoe, Malcolm Marx, Len Massyn, Christiaan Meyer, Howard Mnisi, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Shaun Reynolds, Marnus Schoeman, Sti Sithole, Courtnall Skosan, Dillon Smith, Kwagga Smith, Dylan Smith, Madosh Tambwe, Jacques van Rooyen, Harold Vorster, Warren Whiteley (c).
17 February: Sharks (h)
24 February: Jaguares (h)
3 March: Bulls (a)
10 March: Blues (h)
17 March: Sunwolves (h)
24 March: Jaguares (a)
1 April: Crusaders (h)
7 April: Stormers (h)
13-14: April BYE
20 April: Waratahs (a)
28 April: Reds (a)
5 May: Hurricanes (a)
12 May: Highlanders (a)
19 May: Brumbies (h)
26 May: Stormers (a)
BREAK FOR JUNE TESTS
30 June: Sharks (a)
6-7 July: BYE
14 July: Bulls (h)
OTHER SA PREVIEWS
Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images