Johannesburg – Squad depth and experience – the two key factors every coach will tell you are required for a team to be successful in Super Rugby. The Lions, who return to the competition this year after missing out in 2013, have neither and coach Johan Ackermann readily admits this will be his biggest challenge in the coming months.
The Lions’ first game back in Super Rugby is three weeks away – against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein – but while they’ve spent several weeks preparing for their return, Ackermann will on Friday get his first chance to see just what the depth is like in the franchise. Two Lions teams – both missing several first-choice players – come up against the Leopards’ Vodacom Cup side and the North-West University’s Pukke, the first of three pre-season fixtures.
Asked this week if he had enough quality of depth in his training squad, Ackermann said: “We’ll know on Friday (today).”
The matches will be played at the Barnard Stadium in Kempton Park this evening, with the Lions’ “A” team minus several big-name stars, including Andries Coetzee, Elton Jantjies, Warren Whiteley and Franco van der Merwe.
Ackermann said he is far more interested in seeing the next tier of players in action and has included several players from the Lions’ franchise partners, the Pumas and Leopards, in his squads.
“I am only naming my final 30-man squad at the end of the month but already I know 18 to 20 of them wouldn’t have played any Super Rugby before … that’s our biggest challenge this year,” said Ackermann. “Many others have also only played a handful of games, with only a few having played a fair bit of Super Rugby.
“I now want to see who will be able to step up and play Super Rugby for us this year. In certain positions, like loose forward, we’re well covered and even at lock things are looking up. In other positions, though, we’re a bit thin. I don’t think I’ve got one front-row forward who’s played Super Rugby before.
“It’s the second and third-choice player in each position that I’m concerned about. Unlike the Sharks and some other teams who can replace a Springbok with another Springbok, we can’t do that.”
This evening’s games, then, are about finding a few more players Ackermann believes will be able to stand up to the rigours of Super Rugby.
In the most eye-catching of the pre-season fixtures, the Sharks, under new coach Jake White and skipper Bismarck du Plessis, take on the Saracens in London on Saturday.
White has picked a far from first- choice team, but he is hoping to gain some valuable lessons from the outing. “What I enjoy about this game is that it mimics a little bit of what we can expect from the Bulls (who the Sharks play in their first game on February 15).
“Saracens have a big pack of forwards, their set piece is strong and they kick a lot. It gives me and the coaching staff an opportunity to see the things we want to do against the Bulls and to have an idea of whether or not we can play against the Bulls in a certain way.”