The Lions have surprised all and sundry with a superb URC tour that culminated in three victories from three outings, in the process raising real hope that a talented squad finally has the ability to arrest a few years of underachievement.
By all accounts, the platform has been laid and now needs to be capitalised on.
Sport24 checks out what they’ve done right to date.
Assembling a low-key but highly talented squad
When Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin were guiding the Lions during their most successful period of the professional era, they did so by targeting and moulding young proverbial rejects from other unions while also getting juniors on the payroll that weren’t attracting the limelight already.
In Jaco Kriel, Ruan Combrinck, Franco Mostert, Andries Coetzee, Julian Redelinghuys, Courtnall Skosan and Robbie Coetzee, the franchise found a core of underrated stars who could drive a resurgence along with three established, genuine Springbok prospects in Warren Whiteley, Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe.
However, the key here was that it took the national hierarchy a substantial time to realise that this group of players warranted higher honours, allowing Ackermann almost three years to build his excellent squad without the disruption of Bok duty demands.
About five years later, the Lions under Ivan van Rooyen are in a similar position, with the only material difference being that the youthful core is now some of the best junior or recent junior players in the country – Jordan Hendrikse, Henco van Wyk, Quan and Francke Horn, Ruan Venter, Sbu Sangweni, Sanele Nohamba and Emmanuel Tshituka.
As Van Rooyen noted in the pre-season: “Our approach has been to sign and develop players we believe could form the core of the Bok squad post 2023 World Cup.”
For now, they can arguably look forward to two seasons of being untouched by the national team.
That’s just the way the Lions psyche likes it.
As the Currie Cup brutally exposed, nurturing youth won’t amount to much if they don’t have some experience alongside them to provide class and mentorship.
Marius Louw has the makings of being the signing of the season already, recovering from a substandard debut against the Bulls to being the heartbeat of the Lions’ showings on tour.
A capable backup in a Bok-laden Sharks backline, the 26-year-old is revelling in an environment where he’s considered a key player while applying what he’s learnt with the pedigree that surrounded him in Durban.
Andries Coetzee provides calmness and stability (and URC experience) while twins JP and Ruan Smith aren’t particularly flashy, they’re grizzled and wise props who’ve played a lot of Super Rugby.
In a nutshell, it’s a group of seniors that enhances the Lions’ overall product without hampering the development of the youngster who are the men who must become the superstars.
As obvious as it sounds, it’s a hugely important factor to take into account.
There are some who tend to forget that the sparkling attacking rugby that guided the Lions to three successive Super Rugby finals was underpinned by a formidable platform laid upfront by a combination invariably featuring Malcolm Marx, Mostert, Kriel, Whiteley, Redelinghuys, Ruan Ackermann and Jacques van Rooyen.
For the past few seasons, the franchise tried to keep that more expansive tradition intact, but were only able to deliver mixed results simply because of the suspicion that they were lacking weight and power among the forwards.
But a first pre-season in three years has clearly done wonders for the conditioning of this team.
Venter is the marauding enforcer at No 4 or 7 who leaves a British Lion in Hamish Watson dazed and possibly concussed, Francke Horn looks like a potential Springbok, Tshituka combines power with precision and skipper Reinhard Nothnagel now has presence in the loose.
It’s this physicality that’s keeping the Lions in tight contests, especially given that their set-piece hasn’t quite been top-class to date, especially at scrum time, where technicalities are plaguing them.
The Lions’ defence is by no means perfect.
In fact, there’s an argument to be made that its system lacks a clear identity and structure.
Yet, to his credit, Bok legend Jaque Fourie – an undeniable student of the craft – has maintained throughout that, to him, defence is about attitude and this crop exudes that.
Currently, the Lions spend about 20% on structured defending and 80% on unstructured, which is an interesting perspective because it removes some of the mental pressures of trying to stick to the technical intricacies of the system and simply tasks a player with keeping their opponents out by any means possible.
It’s true that some of the top sides will, in all likelihood, find ways through – the Lions have still conceded 12 tries – and this burgeoning group will find more cohesion as they continue to play together, but there’s no doubt they’ve embraced Fourie’s mantra.
A 90% tackle success rate attests to that.
The numbers in this regard are misleading.
96 points scored put them at the lower end of the spectrum, while their metres gained and defenders beaten metrics are also relatively low.
That suggests an attack that’s performing sluggishly.
However, what the Lions have done is add a potentially crucial arrow to their attacking play – ensuring that they strike with limited opportunities instead of being wasteful with many.
And 10 tries from three matches on tour when European autumn conditions haven’t been easy is no mean feat, particularly when they’ve averaged less than 50% in both the territory and possession stakes.
That ability is the hallmark of a good side in a competition where the margins are very small.
The really tantalising prospect is what happens if the Lions combine that incisiveness with consistent front-foot ball.