Returning to Super Rugby - Lions tackle fresh challenges
After spending a year in the Super Rugby wilderness, the Lions may find it difficult adjusting to their new surroundings when they make their re-entry into the competition this weekend.
The Johannesburg franchise regained Super Rugby status despite losing the second promotion-relegation match against the Kings at Ellis Park where the visitors fell just two points short of the aggregate score after losing their home match in Port Elizabeth.
The Lions strung together matches with weaker sides earlier last year, in the absence of Super Rugby action, but they will face a completely different challenge this time around against some of the best rugby franchises in the world.
Dropped from the elite tournament in 2012, the Lions were replaced by the Southern Kings, who performed admirably during their brief appearance in the competition.
The Eastern Cape franchise gained the respect of rugby supporters around the country but only managed three victories and one draw from their 16 matches.
While the Lions legitimately earned their right to play in the top-tier competition, they face similar challenges to those of the Kings – a lack of sponsorship and time to build their player depth – which will make it an uphill battle for the Johannesburg side.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann would not be drawn into making pronouncements on where his team's aspirations lay for the season after receiving a 57-14 thrashing at the hands of a full-strength Sharks team over the weekend.
"It would be difficult to say, without our best side out there, where we measure up, and we'll take it week by week," Ackermann said.
"I am not going to say that we are going to aim for fifth, sixth or seventh we are just going to play and see where we go."
The match against the Sharks should not be seen as a true reflection of the Lions' potential as most of their stalwarts were rested for the match.
Earlier this month, they beat the Southern Kings 19-12 with a team likely to go into battle during the Super Rugby season.
While the score line did not instil much confidence, it was nevertheless a side that should be competitive on match day.
They will receive a baptism of fire when they start their campaign playing the four South African teams.
The derby matches are often the most brutal of all encounters with the sides out to stamp their authority on the local conference. The Lions open their campaign against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Lack of depth
After the derby matches, the Lions will host the Blues, Reds and Crusaders before they embark on their tour of Australasia.
Although the team would no doubt put up a gallant fight, character alone is often not enough against teams brimming with national players.
Ackermann conceded his side's performance against the Sharks did little to allay fears of a lack of depth but he believed it was an important learning curve for players who had not yet been exposed to top-flight rugby.
"If you look at the score line, I am worried but then again in the second half there was a big margin. The guys were shell-shocked in the first half and it took the wind out of the guys," he said.
"A lot of these guys will be involved in Super Rugby, so we are just going to take all the positives and keep working on that."
The Lions will rely heavily on players with Super Rugby experience and most of the pressure will rest on the shoulders of Springbok lock Franco van der Merwe and flyhalf Elton Jantjies to anchor the team.
The acquisition of Pumas centre Stefan Watermeyer and the return of Lionel Mapoe will give the team an edge in the midfield.
The loose trio of captain Warren Whiteley, Derick Minnie and Jaco Kriel may not possess the physicality of other sides, but they make up for it in terms of mobility.