The Lions will go into this year’s Super 14 with coach Eugene Eloff in the third and final year of his much-talked about three-year plan to turn the side into a Super force.
The first two years of Eloff’s plan did not always have the desired results – although Eloff dismissed the 13th and 14th-placed finishes with his eternal optimism and the readymade excuse of 2009 being year three.
He has made some interesting signings and the arrival of American Eagles captain Todd Clever will bring with it a certain amount of expectation – as will the return of Ashwin Willemse and Jannes Labuschagne.
There does seem to be more depth in key positions than the past two years and if Springboks André Pretorius and Jaque Fourie stay injury free, the men from Johannesburg could make it a top 10 finish.
However, it is difficult to see the Lions making it into the top half of the standings despite all their promise.
They are committed and motivated, but that can only carry them so far.
Strengths: Team spirit, a real passion for the game and a good coach. They also have some great individual talents, a strong and inspirational captain and a stadium that has proved to be very intimidating for visiting teams.
Weaknesses: Even with the new signings, there will remain questions about their depth if injury strikes. They also still need to prove they truly believe in their own ability – especially on the road.
Noteworthy signings: Todd Clever (United States), Ashwin Willemse (Biarritz Olympique), Lawrence Sephaka (Toulon), Jannes Labuschagne (back from retirement), Henno Mentz (Sharks), Barry Goodes (Veneziamestre in Italy).
Noteworthy losses: Joe van Niekerk (to Toulon), Jaco Pretorius (Bulls), Rayno Benjamin (SA Sevens squad), Jaco van Schalkwyk (Italy), Cobus Grobler (Newcastle-on-Tyne)
Coach: Eugene Eloff has been enormously successful with the side in the Currie Cup, installing the same passion within the Lions squad that he did in South Africa’s Under-19 side. They have been semifinalists for the last two years, and finalists in 2007. Eloff now need to show he can take the team a step up at Super 143 level.
Captain: Cobus Grobbelaar is a hard-working flank with a very high workrate. His tackling and support running around the park is exceptional. Still regarded as one of the most unlucky players not to be selected for the Springboks. He took over the captaincy armband from Ernst Joubert midway through last year’s Super 14, when injury ruled out the No.8, and was retained in this leadership role for this year.
Player(s) to watch: There is no doubt that American flank Todd Clever will be in the spotlight, having to plug the gap left by the departure of Springbok Joe van Niekerk to French club Toulon. But the key players will be seasoned Springboks André Pretorius and Jaque Fourie, who must give a talented backline some direction.
2008 Position: 14th
Best finish: 3rd in 2001
Worst finish: 14th in the 2008 S14; 12th in the S12 (1998, 2003, 2004)
Home Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg (capacity 62,000)
2009 Prediction: They have potential and it will be a much improved season – but not enough to get them all the way into the top half of the standings. 8th
Lions squad – provisional: Cobus Grobbelaar, Lawrence Sephaka, Doppies la Grange, Andre Pretorius, Jano Vermaak, Louis Ludik, Heinke van der Merwe, Ernst Joubert, Jaque Fourie, Franco van der Merwe, Earl Rose, Anton van Zyl, Ethienne Reynecke, Jaco van Schalkwyk, Willie Wepener, Louis Strydom, Jannie Boshoff, Willem Alberts, JC Janse van Rensburg, Gerhard Mostert, Walter Venter, Gert Muller, Dewald Senekal, Chris Jonck, Ross Geldenhuys, Henno Mentz, Ashwin Willemse, Michael Killian, Jan van Zyl, Justin Wheeler, Jannes Labuschagne
Friday, February 13: v Cheetahs, home
Saturday, February 21: v Sharks, away
Saturday, February 28: v Bulls, home
Saturday, March 7: Bye
Saturday, March 14: v Stormers, away
Saturday, March 21: v Brumbies, home
Saturday, March 28: v Hurricanes, home
Saturday, April 4: v Chiefs, away
Friday, April 10: v Blues, away
Saturday, April 18: v Reds, away
Friday, April 24: v Western Force, away
Friday, May 1: v Crusaders, home
Friday, May 8: v Highlanders, home
Friday, May 15: v Waratahs, home
Courtesy of Rugby 365Tweet