JOHANNESBURG – It’s been an interesting few days in the world of Lions rugby.
A week ago they lost their coach Swys de Bruin – to stress – as well as defence guru Joey Mongalo after he was found guilty of indecent assault in a Sydney court.
But Warren Whiteley returned to the team after a lengthy absence to lead the side to an unexpected 23-17 win against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Now, seven days on from that win, the Lions have to front up to the Crusaders in Christchurch in a round 11 Super Rugby match on Friday morning.
But Whiteley won’t be there this time, having been ruled out by injury again.
Here are five questions Lions fans – and the coaches and bosses, for that matter – will want answered from their team at 9.35am on Friday.
1 How will the coaching shake-up have affected the team?
Regular conditioning boss Ivan van Rooyen took charge last week after De Bruin left to return to Joburg and, surprise, surprise, the Lions went on to win the game in Hamilton.
Also surprising was the fact Elton Jantjies and Malcolm Marx ran out as starters in the game when they’d earlier in the week been announced by De Bruin to be bench-sitters.
Was it really the Lions’ plan to start them all along, as suggested by CEO Rudolf Straeuli – to con the Chiefs – or did someone step in after the team had been selected and force a change?
Either way, the Lions won, and that after the coaching and selection “shake-up”.
But a week on, one wonders how the players will react to the current situation, having had time to digest the whole affair.
2 How does Whiteley’s absence now hit the team?
After seven weeks out with a chest injury, the inspirational No 8 returned to action in Hamilton to lead the side to a memorable win – and that just a few days after passing a fitness test to prove he was ready to play.
The Lions looked a different team with Whiteley at No 8 and in charge – having taking over the captaincy again from Malcolm Marx – and his partnership with fellow loosies Cyle Brink and Kwagga Smith looked good.
There is no doubting Whiteley’s presence is immense in this Lions team – he is calm, measured and smart.
But he’s now out with a knee problem, failing a fitness test on Thursday, paving the way for Smith to captain the side. It’s again a changed back-row and a new leader in charge; just how will that play a role, if at all?
Unfortunately @WarrenWhiteley failed his fitness test at Captains run. @SmithKwagga takes over the captaincy and also moves to No.8. @marnusschoeman moves into the starting line up at No.6 flanker. @Hacjivah Dayimani moves onto the bench as loose-forward reserve.#LionsPride pic.twitter.com/8J7invgeCo— Emirates Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) April 25, 2019
3 How will they go without Marx?
It was eye-opening to see how much better the powerhouse Bok hooker performed when he didn’t have the captaincy to worry about. Before Whiteley’s return, Marx played well without being too influential, but last week, he was back to his best.
His lineout-throwing was good, he was busy in the loose, he tackled strongly and he looked like a player who wanted to make a statement.
Maybe it was coincidental, coming against a weak Chiefs side, but still, Marx looked like the old Marx, and that surely must have something to do without his worrying about all sorts of other issues.
He’s now back in Joburg – apparently needing to rest in this World Cup year – allowing Robbie Coetzee to get a chance, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the Lions go without Marx in the side.
4 Could Jantjies be a long-term option at 12?
Like Marx, Elton Jantjies came in at the last minute last weekend, and then it was in the No 12 jersey to play in place of Franco Naude, and next to rookie flyhalf Gianni Lombard.
The two men had played next to each other for some of the time in the match against the Brumbies the week before, and again last week they looked good together.
The coaches will tell you the number on the back means nothing and neither does the position; they’re simply flyhalves playing next to each other.
Lots of teams play like that. It gives a side options, left and right, and improved kicking strength.
Sadly, Lombard got injured last week and has returned home, but Jantjies will still play at 12 this week, and he’ll be up against the very experienced and smart Ryan Crotty – a real test for the Lions star. Young Shaun Reynolds will be the flyhalf this week.
5 Are the Crusaders that good?
The Lions’ last win against the men from Christchurch came in 2016, when they won a playoff game at Ellis Park en route to their first Super Rugby final.
Overall though, the Crusaders have been the stronger and better team, winning 10 of their last 11 matches. Two of those wins were in the last two Super Rugby finals, at Ellis Park and at AMI Stadium, ensuring the Crusaders their title as still the best team in the competition.
This year again they have looked a class apart, having lost just once.
And on Friday, they’ll be chasing their 25th straight win on home soil, to be one off the record they set between the 2004 and 2007 seasons.
They’re missing a few key men this week, like Owen Franks, Scott Barrett and Matt Todd, so they’re hopefully going to be tested and pushed to the limit.
This Friday night we take on the 2017 & 2018 runners up, the @LionsRugbyCo and here’s our team for that big clash! #CRUvLIO #salutetoservice Read more at https://t.co/f24oj5pFXe and get your tickets at https://t.co/Rv6wBoUTZE pic.twitter.com/sjQOifwUvo— BNZ Crusaders (@crusadersrugby) April 24, 2019
Teams For Christchurch
Crusaders: David Havili, Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richie Mo’unga, Mitchell Drummond,Kieran Read, Billy Harmon, Whetu Douglas, Sam Whitelock (captain), Quinten Strange, Michael Alaalatoa, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody.
Bench: Ben Funnell, Harry Allan, Oliver Jager, Mitchell Dunshea, Jordan Taufua, Ereatara Enari, Mitchell Hunt, Ngane Punivai.
Lions: Ruan Combrinck, Sylvian Mahuza, Lionel Mapoe, Elton Jantjies, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Shaun Reynolds, Nic Groom, Kwagga Smith (captain), Cyle Brink, Marnus Schoeman, Marvin Orie, Stephan Lewies, Carlu Sadie, Robbie Coetzee, Sti Sithole.
Bench: Jan-Henning Campher, Nathan McBeth, Johannes Jonker, Wilhelm van der Sluys, Hacjivah Dayimani, Ross Cronje, Franco Naude, Tyrone Green.@jacq_west