The one positive from the Saru-created mess of promotion-relegation in Super Rugby is that the traditional bottom dwellers in the South African challenge have polished up their acts.
There never used to be consequences for teams that didn’t over-exert themselves, and over the years some of the challenges from teams such as the Cats, Lions and Cheetahs were embarrassing, but the Sword of Damocles that now hangs over the bottom-finishing South African team is putting the fear of the rugby gods into franchises that used to take Super Rugby inclusion for granted.
Last year, the Southern Kings performed way above expectation because they had a point to prove and this season the Lions have won two from three as they attempt to prove they are worthy of their spot at the top table.
There is a massive financial cost to missing out on Super Rugby and it is difficult for relegated teams to hang on to their players.
It is why Jake White and his Sharks team will take nothing for granted against the Joburg team at Kings Park on Saturday.
“The Lions epitomise everything about the character of South African rugby,” White said. “This time last year, everyone was surprised at how competitive the Kings were, and now there is the same talk about the Lions.
“The South African psyche is this: the guys who have their backs against the wall, and are desperate to do well, will perform better than anticipated – whether it’s a national or provincial team, or a team that has just come into the tournament. It’s almost a given,” said White.
The former Springbok coach said the Lions’ competitiveness this season also emphasised the depth in South African rugby. A number of previously unknown Lions players are suddenly on the lips of local rugby supporters.
“People thought that a Lions team that had so many new faces would be no-hopers, but they went and defeated the Stormers by 20 points and came out on the right side of a tough do-or-die fight against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein,” White said.
“The Stormers have long been rated as one of our best teams, but a young Lions team knocked them over.”
Those two wins of the Lions have made it easier for the Sharks coach to mentally prepare his team for Saturday’s game in which they will start as sound favourites.
“The Lions have shown us that we can’t take them lightly and we can’t go into the game thinking it’s just going to happen,” White warned. “For us it’s about getting right our (mental) build-up to this game so that we give ourselves a fair chance.” - The Star