Johannesburg - No presents will be handed out at Ellis Park on Saturday night, but it’s fair to say it’s going to be one big farewell function.
Both the Lions and Cheetahs are out of the running to make the Super Rugby play-offs – not that they ever were in the hunt – but for several individuals, it’s a game they’ll desperately want to win.
Johan Ackermann’s Lions team are hoping to end their challenge with seven wins – a record – while the Cheetahs, who’re currently 14th in the standings, will be desperate to avoid picking up the wooden spoon, especially after their run to the play-offs last year.
But the result on Saturday night, whichever way it goes, is irrelevant.
The Lions have already surprised friend and foe with their gutsy and at times impressive showing this year, while the Cheetahs’ season has been a big disappointment.
More importantly, both the Lions and Cheetahs will say goodbye to several stars tonight, leaving the unions with some building to do during the Currie Cup.
It is, in fact, quite alarming how many of the players in action this evening may never be seen again in the colours of the Lions and Cheetahs.
In the home side, flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who’ll earn a 50th Super Rugby cap in a rare start this year, will leave the Lions to play club rugby in Japan for the rest of the year, while Willie Britz has also been linked with a move away from Joburg – ironically to the Cheetahs. Jantjies has stated he will return to play Super Rugby next year, but one never knows.
The twice capped Springbok has had a disappointing year and lost his place in the starting team to Marnitz Boshoff, who seems to be coach Ackermann’s first choice No10 going forward.
The other big mover out of the Lions is lock Franco van der Merwe. The tall lock will team up with Ulster in Ireland on a two-year deal, ending his association with the Joburg-side with 99 Super Rugby caps behind him. He may not return to the Lions even if he does come back to South Africa in future.
Ackermann admitted this week the key going forward would be to hang on to their players. “Our progress has been good this year. The guys have played with composure, they’ve shown character and fight and there’s been a great spirit in the squad. It’s been wonderful seeing the individuals grow up.
“But, if we’re going to get better we’re going to have to keep the core of this group together. Maintaining continuity will be crucial,” said Ackermann.
The Lions may be losing a few big name players, but they’re not nearly losing as many as the Cheetahs. Naka Drotske will just about have to start from scratch for the Currie Cup as Johan Sadie, Johan Goosen, Adriaan Strauss and Trevor Nyakane are set to leave for greener pastures. All four are in action tonight and their team-mates will want to send them off in style.
If it’s going to be cold this Saturday evening, the action’s almost definitely going to be hot.
The Lions and Cheetahs have nothing to fear so they can play with freedom and flair, and with so many quality youngsters on show, it could just turn into one of the more entertaining matches of the competition.