JOHANNESBURG - They may have featured in back-to-back finals, and become the dominant side in South Africa, but the Lions have pushed the reset button and are starting from point zero this weekend when the 2018 Super Rugby competition kicks off.
In fact, despite their strong core group of players and their powerful showing of the last few years, the Lions feel they still have to keep improving, to keep up with the rest of the teams in the competition.
“We’ve achieved nothing yet in this competition,” stressed captain Warren Whiteley, referring to his side losing twice in the final.
“We’re starting all over again this weekend and will keep searching for the 'one percenters' to get better. We have to; we can’t stay the same, can’t be the same team we were last year,” said the No 8. “The competition keeps evolving and the teams keep getting better and stronger and we have to keep up with them as well.
“But it’s exciting times as well. We have a new coaching team (headed now by Swys de Bruin) and we’ve tweaked here and there, which is exciting and which I enjoy, but we also haven’t changed much, the systems stay the same.
“We’ve addressed what we’ve achieved in the recent past, dealt with it and have decided to only focus on what’s in front of us, the next match.”
Whiteley is back after a lengthy injury lay-off, but has got some game time behind him after playing in Japan in December and January, along with several of his teammates, who he feels go into the new season in good form. “It’s nice to be back, feels like old times,” said Whiteley after last playing in South Africa last June.
Team Announcement: Emirates Lions vs Cell C Sharks
Saturday, 17 February at Emirates Airline Park. Kick-off is at 17:15.#LetsUnite #VodacomSuperRugby #LIOvSHA@VoxTelecom @HisenseSA @Fidelity_Secure @Rhino_Rugby_SA @WorldSportsBet pic.twitter.com/7qGLFfYntv
“Guys like myself, Elton (Jantjies), Lionel Mapoe, Franco Mostert have played some rugby recently so they should be in good shape and so, too, the other Boks who played at the end of last year. Sure, as a franchise, we just had one warm-up game, but it’s nothing new to us and there’s no secret recipe about what’s the right way of doing things. We’re just excited for the new season.”
De Bruin’s first matchday squad includes eight Springboks in the run on side to take on the Sharks, with no surprises in the 23. In the absence of injured wings Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck, Sylvian Mahuza and rookie Aphiwe Dyantyi get an opportunity, while the centres are Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster, with the duo of Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Howard Mnisi playing off the bench.
And the new-look loose-trio comprises Whiteley, Sevens star Kwagga Smith and Cyle Brink.
De Bruin said he was excited to see rookies like Dyantyi and bench-warmer Hacjivah Dayimani get an opportunity at Super Rugby level. “Aphiwe is a great team man and deserves his chance. He played well in the Currie Cup and I’m excited to see him out there. Hacjivah, as well, is one of our rising young stars and he can play at seven and eight, and even on the wing,” enthused the coach.
The match kicks off at 5.15pm on Saturday.