Tiaan Swanepoel of the Lions during the 2021 Preparation Series match between Lions and Sharks at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, on 20 March 2021 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix
Tiaan Swanepoel of the Lions during the 2021 Preparation Series match between Lions and Sharks at Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, on 20 March 2021 ©Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Five key areas that will define the Lions' season

By Morgan Bolton Time of article published Apr 25, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - After the set-back of the Rainbow Cup’s non-start this past weekend, the Lions must now refocus their plans towards a more domestically-based tournament. Here, we look at some of the key areas that will define their campaign as they start their season against the Bulls this weekend.

5 In their defence

During the recently concluded preparation series, the Lions were gripped by a mood to run at every opportunity. It made for some brilliant moments, but also resulted in certain aspects of their game suffering. Two of those areas were their defence and discipline, and their lack of effort and reliable staunchness in those departments was somewhat of a concern.

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The Lions conceded a staggering 136 points in their three matches against the Pumas, Eastern Province, Sharks and Stormers, collecting a handful of yellow cards along the way. Sure, there were no real repercussions for such a tally, but there will be much more to play for from Saturday onwards. The coaching staff and players have worked hard in recent season on correcting their defensive structures, and it paid dividends in the Currie Cup, so although a worrying aspect in February and March, there is no reason to doubt that it won’t tighten up again from this weekend onwards. What they cannot afford is to be stuck in a mindset of attack only – the 44-12 result against the Stormers showed that if their defence and discipline is not up to scratch in the coming weeks, it might well be a long Rainbow Cup South for the Doornfontein-based outfit.

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4 Try they must

As noted above, there were some genuinely mouth-dropping moments of play during the preparation series. As much as the Lions defence was run ragged by their opponents, the Joburgers gave as good as they got. The Lions scored some awe-inspiring tries, particularly in their 43-40 victory over the Sharks where they strung together some magnificent movements from their own 22 to dot over the whitewash.

The Lions certainly have the backline players to eviscerate any defence, and coach Ivan van Rooyen has the luxury to play around with several match-winning combinations. On the wings they have Courtnall Skosan, Stean Pienaar, Rabz Maxwane and the recently returned Jamba Ulengo, while their centre-combinations can consist of powerful runners such as Burger Odendaal and Dan Kriel, while it also possesses the X-factor of one Wandisile Simelane. Morne van den Berg is nippy, and the scrumhalf has the ability to unlock any defence late on in a match – if utilised in such a role – with quick ball.

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And that neglects the youth players, such as Ngia Selengbe and Prince Nkabinde that were revealed to the larger rugby-loving public during the preparation series.

3 Fronting up up-front

Perhaps the biggest battle that awaits the Lions, will be when they pack down against their opponents. The Lions have been an ever-improving scrumming unit in recent seasons, but make no mistake, they will be battling against much more illustrious forward units in the weeks to come. The likes of Thomas du Toit, Ox Nche, Siya Kolisi, Steven Kitchoff, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Marvin Orie, Pieter-Steph du Toit await, while this weekend they will have to front-up against a powerful and well-drilled Bulls pack that includes Lizo Gqoboka, Trevor Nkanyane, Nizaam Carr and possibly Marcell Coetzee and Duane Vermeulen.

That is an intimidating gauntlet of players to overcome. The Lions will therefore have to rely heavily on players such as Carlu Sadie, Jaco Visagie, Sti Sithole, Ruan Dreyer and Willem Alberts to contain such distinguished players. Van Rooyen does have a highly mobile loose-forward unit at his disposal – Len Massyn, Vincent Tshituka, Francke Horn, MJ Pelser, Roelof Smit and Sibusiso Sangweni have the ability to halt any sides momentum, and they will be key at the breakdown, and out wide if the Lions are to be competitive. Getting the rolling maul correct from the out-set will also be hugely important, so there will no doubt be a focus on ensuring that the forwards work together and do not fracture into individualism.

2 Life without Jantjies

With regular captain Elton Jantjies in France, Van Rooyen will have to choose carefully between Tiaan Swanepoel and Fred Zeilinga for duty at flyhalf. Swanepoel showed during the Currie Cup all his wares, including that massive boot that can slot points between the up-rights from pretty much anywhere on the field. He had a run at flyhalf during the preparation series, and at times looked a bit uncomfortable. That is to be expected, however, and one should presume with a bit more gametime at No 10 he could refine his game, and become a real force.

Zeilinga, meanwhile, is a veteran, but he too was slightly under-cooked in his performances in the recently concluded set of matches – mainly due to not playing for close to a year. The Lions have been spoilt in recent years due to the effervescence of Jantjies, and finding the right man at pivot this week will be one of the coach’s biggest concerns. The Lions do have other options at flyhalf in Aidynn Cupido, Baby Bok Jordan Hendrikse and Luke Russouw, but you’d imagine these players will be more last resort selections.

Much will depend on the gameplan the Lions employ. Weirdly, Swanepoel might be the more conservative selection of the two front-line pivots due to that humongous boot, which could imply a more points-at-all-costs approach. That was certainly the case during the Currie Cup where there was, at times, an over-reliance on Swanepoel’s point-scoring ability

1 The Lions are coming

The preparation series had all the hallmarks of a friendly, pre-season engagement. The Lions were mostly care-free in their approach, swinging the ball around with glee at times, while defensively they were unhinged in their application. They will no doubt be tighter in the coming weeks. There will be a lot more to play for in the as well, so that approach will undoubtedly be a thing of the past. Not only are their log points to consider but the players will also be mindful of the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.

The union was never scheduled to play against the tourist, and if any of their players want the honour to do so, they will have to impress if they are to be considered for any South African side, be it an invitation one, or the national side – if such matches do go ahead from June onwards.

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