JOHANNESBURG – If the Lions are to enjoy another successful run in the 2018 Super Rugby competition, as they did a year ago, a good start will be paramount, according to new head coach Swys de Bruin.
The Lions’ impressive run a year ago ended with Johan Ackermann’s team topping the overall log and playing at home in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.
And according to De Bruin, who takes over as the head coach from Ackermann this year, the new format of the competition forces teams to be switched on every weekend. There are three fewer teams to contend with this year - the competition going back to 15 teams rather than 18 - with the Lions also facing a tough four-match tour of Australasia this time, something they haven’t had to deal with in years.
What this means for the Lions is that they need to make the most of the first few weeks of the competition, when certain teams could still be finding their feet and be somewhat “cold”.
“We’ve got four overseas games this year, which is different to last year and the year before, so it’s certainly tougher than what we’re used to,” admitted De Bruin in the build-up to the competition. His Lions open their challenge with a match against the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday.
“But, having said that, it’s not too much of a big deal either ... we’ve travelled well recently and bagged a lot of points on the road so the players are used to it now. But starting well will be important and making the most of our home fixtures.”
The Lions’ four away games in Australasia are against the Waratahs and Reds, in Australia, and the Hurricanes and Highlanders, in New Zealand, all former champions - in the middle of the competition.
Being in a strong position before heading Down Under in mid-April will certainly benefit the team and boost the confidence, and therefore starting well will be key.
After this weekend’s clash against the Sharks - who’ve given the Lions a few jitters in recent times - the Lions welcome the Jaguares to Johannesburg and they will hope to bank the full five points on offer, before they travel to Loftus to face the Bulls, and then host the Blues and Sunwolves - again teams they’ll fancy their chances of picking up five points against.
Those are five potential swingers for the Lions early on because after that they have to travel to Buenos Aires to face the Jaguares, a place they haven’t had success at in two years, albeit with weakened teams, and then they host the team they lost to in the final last year, the impressive and dangerous Crusaders. Then it’s the Stormers, before they head abroad.
“On paper, it’s a tough ask,” admitted De Bruin about his team’s schedule. “But everyone has difficult games; it’s a tough competition.”
De Bruin will hope his gamble of playing just one competition warm-up game - three weeks ago and with a severely weakened side against the Bulls - pays off this week for the Sharks’ visit. He said he wanted to keep his players fresh and hungry, and injury-free, but it will mean nothing if they don’t get up and beat Robert du Preez’s side who’ve seen far more action in the pre-season.
De Bruin will name his first matchday line-up on Thursday, with fit-again Warren Whiteley set to captain the side from No 8.