Lions face long, tough, excruciating season - Growden
Greg Growden and Andy Withers
February 10, 2014
Are the Lions anything but fodder for the kings of the Super Rugby jungle? © Getty Images
Lions' Super Rugby 2014 Squad
Rugby fans of a certain age will remember the Johannesburg-based Super 10 champions (1993), runners-up (1995) and Super 12 semi-finalists in 2000 and 2001; they will also remember the Lions then were Transvaal and Cats. For everyone else, the Lions were the perennial easy-beats who finished bottom of the Super Rugby ladder six times - five times since 2003 - before they were cast into the wilderness in 2012 to make room for the politically expedient Southern Kings. In seven seasons as the Lions, they never once finished higher than 12th on the ladder. Greg Growden says the Lions are back, but their return is highly unlikely to involve any bite ... one team has to finish last, and they are the raging favourites to do just that.
Last Season: The Lions did not play Super Rugby last season, making room for the Kings, but they defeated those rivals (the lowest-placed South African team on the log) in a tight two-legged relegation-promotion play-off to ensure Johannesburg and Ellis Park once again staged Super Rugby. They also finished fourth of six on the Currie Cup log to make the play-offs with Western Province, Natal Sharks and Free State Cheetahs. And they humiliated Samoa 74-14, scoring at will from long distance.
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick examine the Super Rugby challenge from South Africa's five franchises
Key man: Franco van der Merwe played Super Rugby on loan with the Sharks last season, and he finally made his Springboks debut against New Zealand at Ellis Park. He performed strongly for the Sharks, ranking No.2 behind Ben Mowen for lineout wins, and no doubt he is the man fans will expect to lead the team out of the inevitable holes. He was also named Lions Player of the Year for his efforts in the Currie Cup.
Key Stat: The Lions, in any of their incarnations, have claimed a single-digit finish on the Super Rugby ladder only three times since 1995.
Rising star: Anthony Volmink isn't a physical winger in the modern mould - he is, if anything, diminutive - but he knows how to find the stripe and he topped the Vodacom Cup standings with 12 tries after scoring nine in one match against Limpopo Blue Bulls. He subsequently showed his jet heels with a number of length-of-the-field tries in the Currie Cup, and also a fine try against Samoa in June. He has explosive pace, and his six Super Rugby caps from 2012 can only be an advantage.
Season Preview: It's hard to see a season of anything other than strife and potentially terrible hammerings; that said, we forecast the same last season for Southern Kings but they won their first match in history, against Western Force, and shaped better than anyone had expected in claiming three victories and a draw (against the Brumbies) among the defeats. Jo'burg crowds will turn out in force - at least before defeats dull their enthusiasm - and the Lions no doubt will play with the free-flowing style that captured friends through the Currie Cup, and a competition-high 40 tries, but this is a tough competition and they look nailed on for last.
Greg Growden's verdict: The Lions are back, but their return is highly unlikely to involve any bite. Even though Elton Jantjies is back from the Stormers, their season looks like being long, tough, excruciating. The Currie Cup showed their erratic defence is a serious problem, and that their stocks are pretty limited; if they lose several key players, their poor lack of depth will be exposed big time. Johan Ackermann has taken over as coach, and former Springboks head coach Rudolf Straeuli will also have an impact as he has joined the team as general manager. One team has to finish last, and the Lions are the raging favourites to do just that.
Tip: Last in South Africa Conference. Finish: Last.
The Lions enjoyed the moment after defeating Southern Kings in a two-legged play-off © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton