• Super Rugby preview: Lions

    Super Rugby preview: Lions

    The Lions represent South Africa’s best shot at the Super Rugby title in 2017, writes JON CARDINELLI.

    In 2016, the Lions defied the odds to come through a tough draw and win the Africa 2 conference. They then went on to beat two former champion teams, the Crusaders and the Highlanders, en route to the grand final. While Johan Ackermann’s side lost to the Hurricanes in the decider in Wellington, most were in agreement that the Lions – through their results as well as their ambitious style of play – had provided South African rugby fans with some reason to celebrate.

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    In 2017, the Lions will face all the Australian franchises and none of the New Zealand teams during the conference phase. One would expect the Lions to get the better of the relatively weaker Australians and to strengthen their claim for a top-placed finish that will earn them the right to host a grand final.

    The Lions have room for improvement, though. They leaked far too many points and tries in the 2016 campaign in their drive to play more expansively. They were outplayed by a better defensive side in the final. Ackermann’s charges must play with more intelligence and balance this season if they are to win the franchise’s first title and the first Super Rugby trophy for South Africa since 2010.

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    FORWARD TO WATCH
    Jaco Kriel

    Kriel isn’t the archetypal South African forward. In 2016, the Lions flanker ranked fourth in Super Rugby for defenders beaten (56) and 13th for clean breaks (17) Michael Hooper of the Waratahs was the only forward who made more. Kriel proved a key player in the context of the Lions’ approach and scored six tries. When the Lions battled the Sharks at Kings Park, he led the fight at the breakdowns and collisions. While he’s yet to translate that form to the Test stage, Kriel remains one of Super Rugby’s top performers and will have an important role to play for the Lions when they go hunting for the big prize this season.

    BACK TO WATCH
    Rohan Janse van Rensburg
    He was the best South African centre on show in the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. The 109kg midfielder used his power as well as his deceptive turn of speed to cross the gainline regularly and ensure his team kept moving forward. He also made a name as a finisher when he scored 10 tries (only Israel Folau of the Waratahs scored more). By the end of the tournament, many were calling for his inclusion at Test level. Eventually, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee recognised the need for a player of Janse van Rensburg’s robust talents. The centre received his first opportunity with the Springboks in the match against the Barbarians at Wembley. The 22-year-old was dominant in contact and scored a late try that allowed the tourists to secure a face-saving draw. If he remains fit, Janse van Rensburg will continue to make an impact for the Lions and Boks in 2017.

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    BIG SIGNING
    Marvin Orie (Bulls)

    The lock should boost the Lions’ lineout.

    BIG LOSS
    Marnitz Boshoff (Ireland)

    The Lions’ depth at flyhalf will be tested now that Boshoff is playing for Irish club Connacht.

    2017 FIXTURES
    25 February: Cheetahs (h)
    4 March: Waratahs (h)
    11 March: Jaguares (a)
    18 March: Reds (h)
    25 March: Kings (a)
    1 April: Sharks (h)
    BYE
    15 April: Stormers (a)
    21 April: Jaguares (h)
    29 April: Force (a)
    6 May: Rebels (a)
    12 May: Brumbies (a)
    20 May: Bulls (h)
    28 May: Kings (h)
    BREAK FOR JUNE TESTS
    1 July: Sunwolves (h)
    BYE
    15 July: Sharks (a)

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    NUMBERS THAT MATTER
    487 – Defenders beaten (rank 1)
    9,614 – Metres run (rank 1)
    622 – Points (rank 1)
    81 – Tries (rank 1)
    144 – Turnovers won (rank 1)
    2,036 – Carries (rank 2)
    225 – Clean breaks (rank 2)
    369 – Kicks from hand (rank 7)
    Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App

    2016 RECORD
    Won: 13
    Lost: 5

    PREVIOUS LOG FINISHES
    SUPER 12
    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: 14h
    2009: 12th
    2010: 14th
    SUPER RUGBY
    2011: 14th
    2012: 15th
    2013: DNP
    2014: 12th
    2015: 8th
    2016: 2nd (finalists)
    Note: Played as Transvaal in 1996, and as part of the Cats franchise (with the Cheetahs) between 1998 and 2005

    FAST FACT
    Lions coach Johan Ackermann represented the Bulls in the first Super 12 tournament in 1996 before joining the Cats in 1999

    FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER
    @jantjies_elton

    OTHER SA PREVIEWS
    Bulls
    Cheetahs
    Kings
    Sharks
    Stormers

    Photo: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images

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