The Lions are once again the best team in South Africa. The Johannesburg-based team has emerged from the tumult of the amateur era when, coached by Kitch Christie, they were a potent blend of power and finesse. Transvaal, as they were then known, won the inaugural Super 10 in 1993 and lost in the final to the Reds in 1995.
That team would form the backbone of the Springbok team that won the World Cup later in 1995. Transvaal’s players, however, were at the forefront of wage negotiations when the game went professional at the end of the tournament. Relationships soured as the old order fought to retain the bastions of amateurism and the new order tried to push them back.
A year after the World Cup final, Francois Pienaar and Joel Stransky were playing their rugby in England and, soon afterwards, the floodgates opened. The conflict affected Transvaal more than any other province and it could be argued that it took them 20 years to recover.
That recovery manifested itself with an appearance in the 2016 Super Rugby final, where the long trip to Christchurch proved to be a bridge too far. But this year the fates have conspired in the Lions’ favour. They have cut a swath through the opposition, losing but once with an under-strength unit sent to Argentina.
The same opponents, the Jaguares, and the same defeat in Buenos Aires prevented the 2016 Lions from topping the log. But this year the Crusaders fell at the final hurdle, losing to a revved-up Hurricanes side, thereby ceding the number-one spot to the Lions courtesy of a few extra bonus points earned by Johan Ackermann’s men.
As it turns out, even if the sides had finished level the Lions would have trumped the Crusaders, thanks to a superior points differential. The Lions have an extraordinary ability to score points. They scored 590 and conceded 268, a difference of 322. Divide that number by 15 fixtures and you get 21.46. In layman’s terms, what that means is that over the course of the season the Lions were three converted tries better than their opponents.
That is one of the main reasons that the Lions have captured the hearts of the uncommitted. They play the game as the lawmakers wish to see it — fast, clean and continuous. When South Africa last had a team capable of winning Super Rugby, that was not the case.
The Bulls teams of Heyneke Meyer and Frans Ludeke played a far more conservative game. Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf and Victor Matfield at lock were the brains of the team. Matfield would engineer turnover ball at the line-outs and Du Preez would keep possession with the enormous Bulls forwards or hoist high balls on the opposition for Bryan Habana to chase down.
Meyer used to train the forwards with a stopwatch, practising for the occasions when the Bulls had a narrow lead to protect. They would pick and drive without error, sometimes for as long as five minutes, while their opponents stood and fumed, powerless to play without the ball.
The Lions are different and, although it is often said that today’s players are bigger and stronger than those of the amateur era, let’s do an invidious comparison. Warren Whiteley captains the Lions from number eight. Transvaal’s regular eighth man in the early 1990s was Rudolf Straeuli. Whiteley, at 1.93m and 98kg, is two centimetres and 12kg smaller than Straeuli in his prime. In a static game you would want Straeuli on your side, but this Lions side wins by running rings around the opposition and Whiteley is at the heart of that.
Kwagga Smith plays the same position as Francois Pienaar did —open-side flank. Pienaar, at 1.90m and 108kg, was derided for being too small. Yet he was 10cm and 18kg heavier than Smith. Moreover, Smith’s speed and technical proficiency belong in a different game to the one Pienaar played. Clearly it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.
This weekend the Lions take on the Sharks in Johannesburg. Without ever really engaging fourth gear, they beat the same opponents with some ease in Durban last week. Although knockout games are a different animal to those in log play, it is stretching the imagination too far to imagine the Lions losing.
The same cannot be said of the Stormers, who will have endured sleepless nights ahead of this week’s encounter with the Chiefs at Newlands. The Cape Town side began the season with an unbeaten run but met their Waterloo in New Zealand, conceding a half-century of points in successive weeks against the Crusaders and the Highlanders.
The good news is the Stormers boast a regular season win against the Chiefs, 34-26 at Newlands in April. The bad news is their record in knockout games — one win from eight games at Newlands — is shocking. Nothing they have shown lately suggests that is about to change.