Young Lions still growing into their manes in Super Rugby Unlocked
JOHANNESBURG - Unpredictable disruption, though not unplanned interference, defined the Lions retardation in building momentum and capitalizing on their rising form this SuperRugby Unlocked campaign.
In all the Lions played four of their scheduled matches - losing narrowly against the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls, while dominating the Griquas - while two of their matchday encounters against the Cheetahs and Pumas were either cancelled or postponed in line with Covid-19 protocols.
And although they only managed that aforementioned one victory, there were equal part positives as there were negatives in their play. Here, we look at a handful of those features.
POSITIVE: Let's get physical
At the start of the year, there was genuine concern regarding the scrummig prowess of the men from Doornfontein. During Super Rugby proper, it lacked the grunt and the physicality to outmuscled the opposition, and an old weapon used with devastating effect in years previously was now lost.
That was not the case this past month - the bolstering of the forward pack saw the Lions outscrum much more fancied, and Springbok-laden, outfits, especially against the Sharks and the Stormers.
That new found grunt - powered by Sti Sithole and Carlu Sadie - also extended into their general play, where they were abrasive when required, but still athletic when called upon.
Their defence, an Achilles' heel earlier this year, was brutal and unyielding at times, and was only breached through moments of exceptional play.
NEGATIVE: Moments of weaknesses
The breakdown was a major failing on the Lions' part - losing that contact area at critical moments in all their loses. The lineout also misfired at times, while their maul did not have the desired impact when it did form. At times, their dominant scrum gave up the ghost, overturning hard labour won previously. All improved as the tournament progressed but there remains much work to do to refine these areas
POSITIVE: Youngsters on the rise
Make no mistake, this is a young Lions team. The loose-trio, mostly enlisting Vincent Tshituka, Len Massyn and MJ Pelser, are all under 23-years. Marvin Orie is 25. His lock partner Ruben Schoeman 24. The oldest player in their pack was Jaco Visage at 28, when the likes of Willem Alberts, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Dreyer were not available, which was for most of their matches.
Likewise, their backline is packed with youngsters, and inexperienced players still finding their footing, and with many more years of service under the hood. Wandisile Simelane, only 22-years-old stood out, while before his long-term injury, Gianni Lombard showed his credentials as a future star. EW Viljoen, Dan Kriel, Rabz Maxwane and Burger Odendaal, who have a bit more mileage on the clock, are all still under 27-years-old.
All of them showed moments of brilliance and if they stay fit, remain at the Lions and maintain and build on their form, the Lions backline will become one of the most dangerous in the local game.
NEGATIVE: Moments of weakness
Against the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls, the Lions were in it to win it, but ultimately lost within seven points - and it can certainly be argued that against the coastal teams Van Rooyen's outfit should have pulled off a victory over what can only be described as undercooked and poorly performing opposition.
In both those matches, it was the decision making that let down the Lions. It certainly cost them a potential victory against both those teams in the final moments of both those games. Against the Sharks they scrummed when a lineout would have been a better option, and against the Stormers they rumbled forward only not to protect their possession.
Against the Griquas, who they defeated handedly, they allowed a 20 minute-plus period to swing positively in the direction of the Kimberley-based side, and that lack of concentration reared its ugly head again against the Bulls at the start of the second half, opening the door for the Pretoria team to build pressure and ultimately snuff out any chance of victory.
It is never pleasant to call out a player on his deficiencies but ultimately the blame unfortunately falls on captain Elton Jantjies whose live-time decision making needs still to be perfected. Luckily, the veteran and world cup winner has admitted to still learning his part.