Lions

The Lions’ Super Rugby journey over the past decade has been fascinating, writes Craig Lewis in his SA Rugby Magazine preview of the Lions.

In 2011 and 2012, the team were in woeful shape, and were eventually relegated from the competition. Then came a remarkable rebuilding phase that resulted in the Johannesburg-based side reaching three consecutive finals, although there will still be some regrets that they failed to bag at least one title. Celebrated coach Johan Ackermann moved on, as have a host of gutsy players who revolutionised the Lions side and turned them into one of the most exciting attacking teams in Super Rugby.

Last season was also rather tumultuous for the Lions due to various off-field drama, and ultimately they bid farewell to coach Swys de Bruin, who had some personal challenges. The Lions have also lost a swathe of players who have headed abroad or switched to other teams. In particular, the departure of Malcolm Marx, Kwagga Smith, Lionel Mapoe and the injured Warren Whiteley may set off a few alarm bells in terms of team stability. Having said that, Whiteley appears set to play an important off-field role as a potential future coach.

This equates to another rebuilding phase, now under the leadership of former conditioning coach Ivan van Rooyen, who has been part of the franchise’s set-up since 2009.

‘We have an opportunity to create something very special,’ he said. ‘We have a young, dynamic team and a blank canvas.

‘We will establish clear goals; we will decide who will be involved in this process; what will success look like; and what tools we will use to measure our success.’

The Lions have recruited a few experienced campaigners to offset the youthful feel that runs through the squad. In particular, 37-year-old former Bok stalwart Jannie du Plessis was a surprise but astute signing, while the talented Roelof Smit and Jamba Ulengo will look to relaunch their careers in Joburg. The ‘Bone Collector’, Willem Alberts, is also expected to add further experience and physicality to the Lions’ pack.

As Van Rooyen mentioned, this is effectively a fresh start for the Lions, and the first year of a new era that they hope will eventually reap the sort of consistent success that was achieved between 2016 and 2018.

A real challenge will come as early as the opening round, when the Lions travel to Argentina to face the 2019 runners-up, the Jaguares, but they then return home for matches against the Reds and Stormers, from which they must bank some meaningful points. From the end of February, they have a four-week tour to Australasia, which will include clashes against the Waratahs, Rebels, Blues and Highlanders.

It’s certainly not the easiest start to proceedings, considering that five out of the Lions’ first seven games will be overseas, but it is a period where the new-look side will learn a lot about themselves, and need to make a statement of intent.

FORWARD TO WATCH

This season seems to hold much promise for 22-year-old Hacjivah Dayimani. The past year has been an eventful one for the prodigiously talented youngster, who went through an experimental switch from the loose trio to the backline. He then had a stint with the Springbok Sevens, where coach Neil Powell hailed his ability to fulfil a dual role in both forms of the game. Dayimani returns to the Lions for Super Rugby, and this is the year in which he will want to come of age. There is surely capacity for him to occupy a role in the back row, but after his spell with the Blitzboks, coach Ivan van Rooyen may well revisit the trial of playing him among the backs. Whatever the case may be, the athletic former South African Schools representative is undoubtedly a player to keep a close eye on.

BACK TO WATCH

Look out for youngsters such as Wandisile Simelane and Tyrone Green, who could make this a season to remember, but this nomination goes to Elton Jantjies. The 29-year-old didn’t play a frontline role for the Springboks at the World Cup, but he was still an important member of the squad who lifted the Webb Ellis Cup. Back in August, Jantjies confirmed that there had been interest from several overseas clubs, but he opted to sign with the Lions for two more years, leading up to the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour. The experienced flyhalf has said he views 2020 as a fresh start, and you may well see a more mature Jantjies leading the Lions into battle.

BIG SIGNING

For more reason than one, Jannie du Plessis has to be seen as an important acquisition for the Lions. He will add value with his leadership, experience and mentorship.

BIG LOSS

Malcolm Marx. Not much more needs to said about the big boots that will need to be filled following the departure of the Bok strongman, who is now plying his trade in Japan.

COACH 

It’s been an interesting route into the top job for Ivan van Rooyen. The former conditioning coach has relatively limited experience in the head coaching ranks, but was placed in charge for the Lions’ last two Currie Cup seasons, which included reaching the 2019 final. ‘In Ivan, we have an outstanding coach who covers all areas. His extensive knowledge of the Lions culture, coupled with his scientific background, is paramount in crucial decision-making factors,’ Lions chairman Altmann Allers said after his appointment.

FIXTURES

1 February

Jaguares (a)

8 February

Reds (h)

15 February

Stormers (h)

Round 4

Bye

28 February

Waratahs (a)

7 March

Rebels (a)

14 March

Blues (a)

21 March

Highlanders (a)

28 March

Chiefs (h)

4 April

Sharks (h)

11 April

Bulls (a)

18 April

Sunwolves (h)

Round 13

Bye

2 May

Sharks (a)

9 May

Bulls (h)

16 May

Crusaders (h)

23 May

Stormers (a)

30 May

Jaguares (h)

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