The Lions have made an emphatic statement at the start of this season that suggests they will be genuine title contenders once again, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
When the Lions came up against the Sharks in round one, there were sceptics who wondered whether the departure of highly popular coach Johan Ackermann might be a factor in prompting a shift of power away from Johannesburg.
Instead, the response was clinical and commanding. After weathering an early Sharks storm in that season opener, the Lions went into beast mode at scrum time to lay the foundation for an important 26-19 win.
The Lions then swept away the Jaguares in round two before heading into what was expected to be a highly competitive derby against the Bulls this past weekend. Again, there were those who expected a rejuvenated home side to bring an end to the Lions’ South African dominance.
As it turned out, the Lions unassumingly crossed the Jukskei divide to claim a resounding 49-35 victory that was largely built around an utterly dominant driving maul.
Following the clash, former Bok coach Nick Mallett conceded that he had been ‘suitably chastened’ after backing the Bulls.
‘I thought that the home advantage would be enough to be the difference for the Bulls. But I underestimated how well the Lions’ pack got stuck into them. They scored three tries from driving mauls with seven tries to four in the end, and that was really the difference: the dominance that they had from 10m out.’
Indeed, it’s this often unheralded strength of the Lions’ pack that has become so crucial to the success of a team that is more often celebrated for the flashy brilliance of their backs.
Yet it’s largely as a result of the Lions’ set-piece prowess and front-foot foundation laid by the forwards that the likes of Ross Cronjé, Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe look to have rediscovered their best form, while Aphiwe Dyantyi and Sylvian Mahuza have starred out wide.
After reaching back-to-back finals, it’s already clear that the Lions still have a hunger for more, and they look to have all the necessary weapons in their arsenal to launch a meaningful hunt for an elusive Super Rugby trophy.
New head coach Swys de Bruin has already proven that he is his own man, and the decision to head into the opening round without a specialist scrumhalf replacement, while then shifting Franco Mostert from lock to flank, demonstrates that he is willing to make brave and bold decisions.
So far so good for the Lions, but of course, greater challenges lie in wait. The Crusaders travel to Ellis Park in a few weeks’ time, while a challenging four-week overseas tour will include clashes against the Hurricanes and Highlanders.
It also wouldn’t have escaped the attention of De Bruin that the Lions have conceded 81 points across three games, and he will know his side needs to iron out some soft moments on defence as the competition intensifies.
It’s still early days, of course, but the significance of the Lions’ start to this season should not be underestimated when one considers the expectations that have closely followed South Africa’s leading franchise, and recent two-time runners-up.
What’s evident is that the Lions clearly boast the sort of motivated players and all-round game to compete once again with the best of the rest this season, and that is a massive plus for South African rugby.
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