The Lions’ utter dominance of Super Rugby’s SA Group has come as no great surprise, given their success in 2016.
Over the past two seasons, the Lions have lost a total of five games – two of which came with them resting the first-choice team for a trip to Argentina. Their seat at the table with the title contenders is certainly well deserved, but will they be there at the end to enjoy the dessert?
The answer is… things don’t end well for the Lions in 2017.
They’ve had an easier path this season, skipping the New Zealand sides. That didn’t work out very well for the 2016 Stormers who also topped their conference only to be humiliated by a Kiwi team (the Chiefs) at the first time of asking.
The Lions have not been properly tested. They can only be less prepared than they were last year to face one of New Zealand’s contenders in the playoffs, none more so than the Crusaders who – if they finish top of the pile – are likely to host the final.
For the Lions, this means travelling to Christchurch. In 20 years of Super Rugby, no SA side has won a playoff game in New Zealand. Since 2006, the Crusaders have reached four Super Rugby finals, winning both of those played at home. They have an impeccable record in front of their fans and the South Africans will have little to no chance of upsetting them at their fortress.
Springbok coach Allister Coetzee relied heavily on Lions personnel in June and, while it would have been a huge honour for the likes of Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skosan to establish themselves as Bok regulars, the Lions may feel the physical repercussions of this as the increased workload takes its toll.
Inspirational skipper, Warren Whiteley has already cried off and will miss the rest of the competition – a major blow to the Lions’ chances.
There has also been much made of coach Johan Ackermann leaving the Lions. The man in charge has created a family atmosphere at the union and he will be sorely missed. The general opinion is that the Lions could be galvanised in their efforts to give the big man a worthy send-off. But there are numerous examples in sport where these extra emotions hamper, rather than inspire.
Swys de Bruin has been appointed as his successor, but there is still some uncertainty about the future. These factors are capable of upsetting the harmony and focus within the team at a time when there should be only one clear goal and focus.
The Lions have been a joy to watch. They’ve played with pride, passion and excitement. The players have deserved recognition at higher levels and the effort of the coaching staff has rightly been highly praised.
However, thrilling the locals on a weekly basis is one thing; winning a tight Super Rugby final, especially one in New Zealand, is quite another.
The men from Johannesburg are doomed to come up short yet again.
Hein Diemont is a passionate couch critic who screams, cheers and swears at his TV, usually all within the space of one game! His rants from the comfort of his couch are brutally honest with no punches pulled. Follow him on Twitter: @HDCouchCritic
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