Johannesburg – Five players will make their representative debuts for the Lions at the weekend when the relegated Super Rugby franchise take on Russia at Ellis Park in the inaugural game of the Lions Challenge.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann has thrown flyhalf Lionel Cronje, centres Harold Vorster and Stokkies Hanekom, flank Warwick Tecklenburg, and lock Franco Mostert straight into the fray as the Lions begin a new era on Saturday night.
They have, however, also chosen their strongest available combination – barring the injured Jaco Kriel, Alwyn Hollenbach, Ruan Combrinck and Deon van Rensburg – endorsing the feeling that the Johannesburg-based franchise are eager to begin their new era with winning momentum.
“Every game will be important for us, but it's especially important that we start this tournament well,” Ackermann said after announcing his team on Thursday.
“I'm happy with the mix of players I've got, and we have the opportunity now to try a few players, but there will be a time closer to the end of the competition when I'll have to settle on number one and number two in every position.
“We want to fine-tune our game, get some conditioning and continuity going, especially getting the new players to gel, and it will be our first real contact because we haven't had a lot up till now.
“We want to get our style of play going too, but really I just want to win and get the guys out on the pitch.”
Russia are the first of three international teams that the Lions will play this season, but the hosts admitted they knew little about their opening opposition, save for the likelihood that their strength would be concentrated in their pack.
“They traditionally like to keep the ball in front of their forwards, but we enjoy it when teams come here to scrum because we enjoy that too,” said Lions captain and loosehead prop JC Janse van Rensburg.
The Lions have been bolstered by the arrival of players with Super Rugby experience such as Cronje and Tecklenburg. The talented youngsters have both turned their backs on the Bulls, along with promising lock Mostert.
SA Under-20 cap Vorster and former South-Western Districts centre Hanekom have been paired together and, being big, tall and fast, should provide forward movement for the Lions in midfield.
Team: Andries Coetzee, Deon Helberg, Stokkies Hanekom, Harold Vorster, Anthony Volmink, Lionel Cronje, Michael Bondesio, Willie Britz, Derick Minnie, Warwick Tecklenburg, Franco Mostert, Hendrik Roodt, Ruan Dreyer, Martin Bezuidenhout, JC Janse van Rensburg. Replacements: Francois du Toit, Jacques van Rooyen, Jacques Kotze, Hugo Kloppers, Claude Tshibidi, Ross Cronje, Marnitz Boshoff, Ruhan Nel. – Sapa