The Lions may have failed to make the SuperRugby playoffs after their dramatic weekend draw against the Stormers, but the Johannesburg-based franchise has certainly earned the respect of all their opponents this season.
Just two years after they were controversially relegated from SuperRugby, the Lions have clinched second place in the South African Conference and boast an almost identical record to the Brumbies, who have snuck into the playoffs ahead of them because of bonus points.
They have maintained their positive style of play with ball in hand, but where they have improved most is defensively, boasting the best tackling success rate in the competition. The Lions play at the highest tempo of all the South African sides as they swarm around in defence and always have great intensity on the ball. Their powerful scrum has provided a solid platform and their lineout has also been efficient.
“It’s all about playing with intensity and hunger, and we have to up our performance every week. There are plans in place, but I also allow the guys to be free spirits and you have to live with the small mistakes that come from that,” coach Johan Ackermann says. “Obviously I’m very proud of the team, it must be one of our best years and it shows that hard work is worth it.”
The Lions have certainly deserved all the praise that has come their way, beating the qualified Waratahs and Highlanders in the last five weeks and showing all season that they are never out of the contest with some superb second-half comebacks.
“There’s great belief within this side, a real hunger. We want to close down the opposition’s space and put them under pressure. We’ve built our physicality in defence, we want to be in their faces and not stand back,” captain Warren Whiteley says.
Their impressive performances have seen several of their players grow into Springbok contenders. The most likely Lions player to feature in Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok World Cup squad is flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who dares to take the ball flat and attack the opposition line, has superb hands and is a strong defender, as well as kicking well this season.
Eighthman Whiteley is competing with Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger for a place at the World Cup, but he gets through a mound of work and is the only player in SuperRugby this year to have made more than 200 tackles, while also being highly effective in a linking role, possessing great skill and vision as befits a Springbok Sevens player who helped win the Commonwealth Games gold medal last year.
He is also adept at interfering with the opposition lineout, where Franco Mostert has also been a key performer for the Lions, as well as in the loose.
Warwick Tecklenburg has been outstanding in doing all the Lions’ dirty work, being second only to Whiteley in terms of tackles made, but fellow flank Jaco Kriel has been the most impressive forward.
A constant nuisance at the breakdown, he oozes raw talent in offence, having phenomenal pace, strength and hands, and has more often than not been able to spark the most sensational counter-attacks by the Lions.
Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe have proved to be two powerful centres, while scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and wing Ruan Combrinck are two other backs who have announced themselves as future Springboks this year.
Despite their success over the last two years, Ackermann says at the moment they are just playing pretty rugby and haven’t won anything yet, there is more growing to do.
“We can look back on a good season regardless of missing the playoffs. The players know where they stand with me and they know my expectation on deserving the jersey. As long as they do that, I can’t ask for more. The growth from last year is definitely there, but there is still a lot of work to do.
“Nobody has achieved anything yet. We are not in the playoffs, we haven’t won the Currie Cup yet, we haven’t won any trophies yet. But if you ask me if there is a lot of growth, both for me as coach and for the team, then definitely if you look where we started in January 2014 until where we are now,” Ackermann says.