/ 11 July 2016

With Super Rugby play-offs looming it is finally time for the Lions to pounce

Anticipation is mounting — especially for Lions' fans — as Super Rugby play-offs get nearer and nearer.
Anticipation is mounting — especially for Lions' fans — as Super Rugby play-offs get nearer and nearer.

As a rugby franchise the Golden Lions have been so blighted by wrong turnings and false starts that it is difficult to know where exactly to begin their story. Do we go back, for example, to the end of the 2012 Super 14 season, when they finished bottom of the log, thus paving the way for the Southern Kings to play in their place in 2013?

Or do we start in 2014, when, after having returned to Super Rugby after the Southern Kings’ disastrous season in the competition, they contrived to lose the Currie Cup final at Newlands. Marnitz Boshoff, playing at flyhalf that day, was entrusted with kicking duties and his approach to the quixotic gusts of Newlands was naive and decidedly upcountry.

In retrospect, this was vintage Lions: another frustrating case of “close but no cigar”.

We could even begin the story of the Lions’ adventure in February 2015. During their opening Super Rugby fixture of the season they entertained the Hurricanes in what we’ve been encouraged to call Emirates Airline Park. It was a match in which they had their chances but one which they somehow contrived to lose.

Just over a year later and the Hurricanes did it again, racking up 50 points in the Lion’s den by flooding the breakdown, straying as close to the off-sides line as possible and playing a callow referee like a fiddle.

It was another false dawn and Lions fans had seen it all before. They went home to kick the dog, vloek (swear at) the parrot and drink too much of whatever it was they were using as a Red Bull chaser.

These, though, are the widely-discussed lows. To balance the scales it would be remiss not to mention last year’s superb Currie Cup victory, or this season’s superb early away victory against the Chiefs. Then there was the Loftus rampage of six weeks ago, where the Bulls were reduced to such a rabble that gown men were seen leaving the stadium in droves, tearfully vowing never to don a hollowed-out watermelon hat ever again.

That game at Loftus belonged to Rohan Janse van Rensburg, a barrelling champagne cork of a centre. Being a product of Waterkloof High School and a former Blue Bull himself, Janse van Rensburg had much to prove against his old province. This seems to be one of coach Johan Ackermann secrets — taking players discarded from other provinces and re-treading them as Lions.

Even his assistant, Swys de Bruin, conforms to the mould, having had two stints at the Sharks sandwiched between a stay at Griquas. Like De Bruin, the unfortunately injured Warren Whiteley is also a KwaZulu-Natal old boy, and both Ruan Combrinck and Ross Cronje played their rugby at Michaelhouse.

By contrast, Lionel Mapoe was educated at Fichardpark High in Bloem, a blue-collar school if ever there was one, so is nominally a Cheetah. Ackermann has taken them all and hammered them into form and shape and unity, combining the discards with local boys like Julian Redlinghuys (from Monnas) and find of the season, Malcolm Marx (from King Edward).

Whatever their pedigree or background, with the play-offs looming, the most important month of their rugby lives is just around the corner. Their big players — such as Jaco Kriel — are already preparing for life overseas, so the time for the Lions to pounce is surely now.

As we’ve seen, they’ve been no strangers to heartbreak in the past three or four years, whether this has taken the form of losing Currie Cup finals or enduring injury or the shame of poor performance.

But Ackermann and De Bruin have them playing a quick, direct form of rugby that is difficult to defend against. As the season has progressed, so the Lions’ long-suffering fans have been creeping closer and closer to the edge of their seats. So have we. We desperately need some good rugby news — and we’re looking to the pride to oblige.