It’s a case of always the bridesmaid and never the bride for the Lions, who’ve finished as runners-up three years in a row. Is 2019 the year they finally win that title, or will the departure of key players see them derailed?
Coach: Swys de Bruin
Captain: Warren Whiteley
Major signings: Stephan Lewies (Sharks)
Major departures: Ruan Dreyer (Gloucester), Corne Fourie (Stormers), Jacques van Rooyen (Bath), Franco Mostert (Gloucester), Jaco Kriel (Gloucester), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Sale)
Warren Whiteley (captain), Jacobie Adriaanse, Johannes Jonker, Danie Mienie, Sti Sithole, Dylan Smith, Malcolm Marx, Lourens Erasmus, Rhyno Herbst, Robert Kruger, Marvin Orie, Cyle Brink, Hacjivah Dayimani, Len Massyn, Marnus Schoeman, Kwagga Smith, Ross Cronje, Nic Groom, Dillon Smit, Elton Jantjies, Shaun Reynolds, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Ruan Combrinck, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Courtnall Skosan, Madosh Tambwe, Andries Coetzee, Sylvian Mahuza.
Won 9, lost 7, finished first in the South African Conference, second overall
You could tell the story of their 2018 as success or failure depending on your perspective.
On one hand, they lost in the final – again, and again to the Crusaders, who’ve beaten them on the final day twice in a row after they were also runners-up against the Hurricanes in 2016.
On the other hand, the fact they maintained their position at the top of the South African conference and made it to the final yet again suggests the transition to a new coach from Johan Ackermann to Swys de Bruin has been an unqualified success.
That said, the overall ledger reads fairly different in 2018 to what it did the year prior – nine wins and seven losses was good enough to top the South African conference, but it’s a significant distance behind the 14-1 record of 2017.
The Lions have a few things to hang their hats on, as you’d expect of a team that has been so consistently successful in recent years.
They scored 89 tries in 2018, the second-most of any Super Rugby team and only narrowly behind the competition-topping Crusaders (90).
No side racked up more carries (2267) or defenders beaten (519) across the season, nor more consistently won their lineouts (90.8 per cent).
The latter stat is as good a time as any to mention the Lions’ best player: hooker Malcolm Marx. Accurate at the lineout and a beast at the breakdown, few players in the world have the same impact around the ground from the no.2 jersey.
Discipline is also one of the Lions’ strengths – they were hit with just one yellow card last year, the fewest of any side.
Although they’ve lost some key players to the northern hemisphere, there’s still a strong core of Springboks talent on the list in addition to Marx, including skipper Warren Whiteley, fly-half Elton Jantjies, flanker Kwagga Smith and tearaway winger Aphiwe Dyanti.
Well, we had to talk about the departures sooner or later, and there are some quality players who have left the Lions for the riches of Europe.
Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert and Ruan Dryer have all left to be reunited with Ackermann at Gloucester, while Jacques van Rooyen and Rohan Janse van Rensburg have also left to go north.
Lock Stephan Lewies was a notable offseason acquisition, tasked with the unenviable job of replacing Mostert in the second row, but there’s no doubt they’ve had a net loss of talent.
From a tactical perspective, the Lions have been criticised for their fixation on attacking play, having lacked flexibility in their game-plan at times. Some improved game management from Elton Jantjies would go some way to correcting that flaw.
The team De Bruin inherited last year was not too far different from Ackermann’s impressive 2017 outfit, but following some key departures, it’s now a large step further away.
Can De Bruin keep this team in contention? Even considering the players who’ve left, the Lions still look to be South Africa’s top team by a fair distance.
They’ve lost just one of their last 23 encounters with against their countrymen, and that dominance should put them in good stead for another strong finish.
Prediction: First in the South African Conference, third overall
The Roar’s 2019 Super Rugby preview series