All eyes will be on the Lions and specifically their flyhalf Butch James today when the defending Currie Cup champions kick off their challenge against the Cheetahs in Johannesburg today.
After another dismal Super Rugby campaign and staring relegation from Super Rugby in the face, the Lions have it all to do to convince the doubters they were no one-hit wonders last year.
With a settled side, John Mitchell led the team to glory last season – for the first time in 12 years – but the triumph was helped by some top teams being without several first choice players who were on World Cup duty.
Since that victorious day in late October, however, the Lions have gone 16 Super Rugby matches with three wins, lost Mitchell and two assistant coaches and been “threatened” with Super Rugby relegation to make way for the Southern Kings.
And, in the last 10 days, the Lions also changed their captain for the fifth time in two years… JC Janse van Rensburg being the latest man to be called on to lead the side.
And, as their challenge begins they will be without their key playmaker from last year’s campaign, Elton Jantjies – who had deservedly been called up to the Bok Rugby Championship squad – so interim coach Johan Ackermann will rely on the veteran World Cup winner from 2007, James, to lead his team’s charge.
The former Sharks man has been erratic in 2012, mixing good play with very ordinary stuff but he looked sharp in the latter stages of Super Rugby, on the outside of Jantjies.
Now he’s back at flyhalf and will have to be the man to make the big calls for the Lions at the back.
But does James who is leaving the union at the end of October, still have the desire to play Currie Cup rugby for the Lions and is he still up for it?
These and many more questions about the Lions will be answered to some degree today against the Cheetahs who are also missing some big name players who are either with the Boks in Cape Town or injured.
And how different will the Lions be now that Ackermann is in charge?
Will there be a greater emphasis on the forwards now that Mitchell is no longer involved and what kind of game, overall, will they dish up?
Besides James’ showing, the combination of Waylon Murray and Lionel Mapoe in midfield and the performance of former captain Joshua Strauss at blindside flank will keep observers interested.
On the side of the Cheetahs, there are also some young guns who’ll be keen to make an impression in the absence of some regulars.
Loose forwards Boom Prinsloo and Lappies Labuschagne are stars of the future, while SA U-20 wing Raymond Rhule is also a bright prospect
With only 10 matches to be played – home and away against five teams – there’s little room to settle in to the competition. Winning is vital from the word go and for the Lions a big few weeks lie ahead ... they’ve got to show all of South Africa they still belong among the so-called “big five”.
Lions: Andries Coetzee, JR Esterhuizen, Lionel Mapoe, Waylon Murray, Anthony Volmink, Butch James, Michael Bondesio, Derick Minnie, Josh Strauss, Cobus Grobbelaar, Franco van der Merwe, Hendrik Roodt, Jacobie Adriaanse, Callie Visagie, JC Janse van Rensburg (capt). Replacements: Francois du Toit, CJ van der Linde, Willie Britz, Warren Whiteley, Ross Cronje, Guy Cronje, Ruan Combrinck
Cheeaths: Hennie Daniller, Nico Scheepers, Robert Ebersohn (capt), Andries Strauss, Raymond Rhule, Riaan Smit, Piet van Zyl, Davon Raubenheimer, Pieter Labuschagne, Johann Prinsloo, Izak van der Westhuizen, Waltie Vermeulen, Marcel van der Merwe, Hercu Liebenberg, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Elandre Huggett, Schalk van der Merwe, Francois uys, Kabamba Floors, Sarel Pretorius, Sias Ebersohn, Philip Snyman