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THE Lions are again headed for a bottom-place finish in this year’s Super Rugby competition ... but the only surprise is that so many fans expected better.
With a record of 16 wins in 91 matches since 2006 – this morning’s match against the Reds included – it is remarkable that so many people expected the Lions to be giant-killers in 2012. The problem, of course, arose when John Mitchell led his team to Currie Cup glory last season and that word “expectation” all of a sudden reared its head.
It needs to be noted that while the Lions played sparkling rugby in last year’s Currie Cup, they beat the likes of the Cheetahs, Sharks, Western Province and the Bulls who didn’t have their World Cup Springboks in the ranks. Sure, those Boks returned for the semi-finals and final ... but they only disrupted their provincial teams and allowed the Lions, who had built up so much momentum, to look even better.
That skewed sense of readiness for Super Rugby got to the Lions and sadly their results this year confirm just how far behind they are in relation to the other big unions in South African rugby.
The results of last year’s Currie Cup and what’s transpired this season in Super Rugby can be compared very effectively with what happened four years ago when Eugene Eloff was still coach of the Lions. In 2007 he led the Lions to the Currie Cup final (which they lost to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein), but the following year in the Super 14 they managed just two wins in 13 games ... again proof of the flawed “readiness and strength” of the team because the World Cup Boks also missed the 2007 Currie Cup campaign.
For what it’s worth, 2007 Currie Cup winners the Cheetahs won just once in 13 games in the 2008 Super 14.
“The expectation that comes from doing well in the Currie Cup is a killer,” said Eloff on Friday. “It creates confidence in the players ... that they’re going to all of a sudden do well in Super Rugby, but you just can’t compare the two competitions.
“Super Rugby is very tough ... and if you don’t have the quality of players and the depth, you’re not going to make it. The Lions, despite their win last year, haven’t had the quality or depth for years now and when matched against teams who are at full strength in Super Rugby, they’re shown to be not good enough.”
He does add, however, that the string of injuries haven’t helped, something former Lions star Japie Mulder points to for the team’s poor showing this year.
“I really believe that the 15 or so guys who played in last year’s Currie Cup are good enough as a team to have done well in Super Rugby this year. But without all of them, the depth at the union is exposed and we can all see what’s happened. The back-up guys are just not good enough ... not for a competition like Super Rugby.”
Mulder also points to the few early losses which have set the Lions back. “First came the injuries to key players, then a few poor performances and losses and that flowed over into the minds of the players and the confidence was all of a sudden gone ... it’s a ripple effect and it’s not going to be easy to turn it around now.”
Whether the Lions management, the coaches and the players like it or not, the playing department, it seems, is just not strong enough for the team to be successful in Super Rugby.
“They need to ask the question, ‘do we have the quality and the depth?’ If they can be brutally honest in answering that, only then will the Lions be able to look at their future in realistic terms,” said Eloff.
These players have all missed games because of injury. Several will miss the entire competition:
JC Janse van Rensburg (prop, back from injury), CJ van der Linde (prop, back from injury), Bandise Maku (hooker, out of competition), Wikus van Heerden (lock, out of competition), Michael Rhodes (lock/flank, out of competition), Paul Willemse (lock, injured), Stephan Greeff (lock, injured), Michael Bondesio (scrumhalf, injured), Elton Jantjies (flyhalf, back from injury), Alwyn Hollenbach (centre, injured), Doppies la Grange (centre, out of competition), Waylon Murray (centre, out of competition), Dylan Des Fountain (wing, out of competition), Michael Killian (wing, back from injury), Lionel Mapoe (wing/centre, back from injury), James Kamana (wing, back from injury)