2016 was the Lions’ best season in their existence finishing on top of the Africa 2 Conference. They were the best South African team for years and probably the best to watch, ever.
They had never been in a final or semi-final before although a combined team with the Cheetahs, appropriately called “The Cats”, were losing semi-finalists in 2000 and 2001.
The Lions were runners-up last year and will be endeavouring to go one step further this season to become only the second team from the republic to win the competition.
Lions lost in Buenos Aires with scratch team and they paid for it
Going into the last round the Lions were ahead in the overall competition, but they selected a team for Los Jaguares which had many secondary players in it. They were forewarned of what might happen—and it did: they lost in Argentina and also their right to host the final if they made it that far.
Despite beating the Crusaders and the Highlanders in the quarter- and semi-finals at home at Ellis Park, putting 42 points on each team in doing so, all the ducks had lined up for the Hurricanes and they hosted the final and won. Mind you the Hurricanes defeated the Lions 50-17 in Round 10 at Ellis Park, so there was no guarantee that a home final would have resulted in a Lions win anyway.
But think of the gate money they could have had.
In 2016 the Lions played more like a NZ team than a South African team. They played an attacking brand of rugby and had some impressive stats, leading the competition in most tries (81), defenders beaten (484) and metres gained (an incredible 9,685).
Not many changes to this 2016 Conference winning team
Major team changes
The only two players who are missing from the 23 that played in last year’s Super Rugby final are experienced flanker Warwick Tecklenburg, who has retired, and tighthead prop Julian Redelinghuys who suffered a horrific neck injury in the Currie Cup which required surgery.
Since many good players are returning few of the new arrivals in the squad have substantial Super Rugby experience: as expected, the majority have been promoted from the Golden Lions in the Currie Cup.
Warren Whiteley – inspirational Lions’ captain
Strengths and weaknesses
A positive is the creativity in the backline which is driven by flyhalf Elton Jantjies but is also contributed to by the energy of scrum half Faf de Klerk. Plus you don’t score the most tries in the competition without dynamic finishers such as Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnall Skosan and Lionel Mapoe, who combined for 29 tries last season—all finished in the top ten try scorers.
While the backline’s creativity is something to savour, the Lions forward pack isn’t exactly making the back line carry the can. Jaco Kriel is always looking for work in attack and can beat a defender or two, Franco Mostert is a tackling machine and Warren Whiteley provides great leadership and energy.
Head Coach Johan Ackermann back in the day – he was telling people what to then too
And let’s not forget the affable Head Coach Johan Ackermann as a positive factor. At the end of 2012 the Lions had been in last place in three of the five previous seasons (and lost all their 13 games in 2010); so they were relegated for 2013. When they were reinstated in 2014 new coach Ackermann found out that many of the old Lions’ players had gone with the wind, but he turned them around—and look at them now.
The Lions were only middling in their success rates in getting ball from their own scrums and rucks in 2016 and will look to improve there.
Another negative aspect that may impact on the Lions is the injury list – Redelinghuys is out for the season as noted above, loosehead prop Dylan Smith (shoulder) is not due back in action until March, and Springbok wing Ruan Combrinck (shoulder), a surpise packet last year, will return in April.
Lions play the easier Aussie teams this year.
The Lions have a good draw this year playing against the easier Australian Conference teams as opposed to the NZ Conference sides. They can set up their season with their first five weeks against the Cheetahs, Waratahs, Jaguares, Reds and Kings.
There is one bad aspect to the “soft draw” which may occur once the Lions hit the finals (assuming they make it). They will be coming up against a talented NZ side without being tested by them during the season, and could be bushwhacked, as the Stormers were at Newlands last July by the Chiefs in the quarter-final.
The Lions squad for the first trial did not resemble anything like their Round 1 team will look, and the Bulls won handily. Then they had a comfortable win over SupaBaabaas scoring seven tries to three.
In their final trial the Lions started well to twice take a 14 point lead in the first half against the Stormers, but the southerners were able to level the scores before half time, and were the better team in the second half defeating the Lions 57-40.
Lions beat the Sharks twice last year – should do it again
The Lions’ position in Africa Conference 2 could come down to the two matches against the Sharks in Rounds 6 and 17. So the match in the last week of the season could determine who finishes on top of the Conference.
With the Lions having a good draw and having beaten the Sharks twice in 2016, I predict that they will again top the Africa 2 Conference.
The favourable draw will also enable the Lions to accumulate enough points to top the overall ladder, meaning they won’t have to leave home during the finals, and there I predict they will win their first Super Rugby title.
Africa 2 Conference – 1st – Super Rugby Champions*
* Overall position 1st