Having fallen at the final hurdle two seasons in a row in final losses to the Hurricanes and more recently the Crusaders, the Lions will be aching to capture their first Super Rugby title and end the current Kiwi sides’ domination.
Last year: The Lions made the most carries, running metres, and had the highest ruck success as well as the most clean breaks and defenders beaten in the competition.
They scored 92 tries in the whole campaign, which helped set up a home quarter-final with the Sharks. Trailing with two minutes to go, star wing Ruan Combrinck landed a monster penalty goal from just inside his own half to steal the victory and send the Johannesburg faithful into raptures.
Johan Ackermann’s side stormed back from 22-3 to down the Hurricanes 44-29 in the semi-final and claim sweet revenge for the previous year’s final.
However, Ackermann and his troops were to be denied once again in front of a record 62,000 seater crowd in the final in Johannesburg. After Kwagga Smith had been shown an early red card for tackling David Havili in the air, it was always going to be an uphill battle against the competition’s most stubborn defence with the Crusaders claiming a record eighth crown and denying Ackermann a fitting farewell as he headed to Gloucester.
This year: In 2017, the Lions did not face any New Zealand opposition before the semi-final stage of the competition, with some feeling this might have left them slightly undercooked for the final with the Crusaders.
This time around they face four of the five Kiwi franchises before the knockout phases, which should better prepare them for later in the competition.
It should be a smooth transition with Swys de Bruin a familiar father figure to the players who will no doubt miss Ackermann. But can he provide the self-belief that can finally get the Lions over the line?
Franco Mostert stole more lineouts than any other player in Super Rugby last season. His workrate is exceptional as he is consistently among the top tacklers in the team.
Andries Coetzee was in the top ten for defenders beaten, metres and carries made in last year’s competition. However, has been exposed at international level for his aerial ability and will need to improve on that aspect of his game.
Players to watch:
Watch out for the reunion of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe at centre. The centre pairing formed such a formidable partnership the season before last. But Janse van Rensburg was out for the majority of last season as Harold Vorster proved he is more than a capable back-up, with the Johannesburg outfit blessed in this department.
Kwagga Smith has an all-round skill-set and is a valuable team player. His recent performances for the Blitzboks have been nothing short of awe-inspiring and he will be looking to force his way into Springbok contention next.
Prospects: The Lions have been weakened by key players leaving while they have hardly strengthened when compared to the Sharks, who we see topping the South African conference this time out.
While they may reach the quarter-finals, we don’t feel they have the strength in depth to go all the way.
Players In: Jacobie Adriaanse (Bulls), Christiaan Meyer (Griquas), Khwezi Mona (Pumas), Marnus Schoeman (Bulls)
Players Out: Justin Ackerman (Montpellier), Ruan Ackermann (Gloucester), Fabian Booysen (SWD Eagles), Faf de Klerk (Sale), Jaques Nel (Kings), Anthony Volmink (Kings), Akker van der Merwe (Sharks), Jaco van der Walt (Edinburgh), Hencus van Wyk (Sunwolves)
Saturday, February 17 v Sharks (Ellis Park)
Saturday, February 24 v Jaguares (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 3 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld)
Saturday, March 10 v Blues (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 17 v Sunwolves (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 24 v Jaguares (José Amalfitani Stadium)
Sunday, April 1 v Crusaders (Ellis Park)
Saturday, April 7 v Stormers (Ellis Park)
Round Nine: Bye
Friday, April 20 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium)
Saturday, April 28 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium)
Saturday, May 5 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium)
Saturday, May 12 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium)
Saturday, May 19 v Brumbies (Ellis Park)
Saturday, May 26 v Stormers (Newlands)
Saturday, June 30 v Sharks (Kings Park)
Round 18: Bye
Saturday, July 14 v Bulls (Ellis Park)