RYAN VREDE writes that the Lions and their supporters must be realistic about their expectations in Super Rugby.
Robert Gumede’s substantial investment in the franchise won’t translate into instant success. There will be no dramatic ascent to the southern hemisphere summit.
Certainly the Lions have recruited a number of dependable players, including Waylon Murray, Bandise Maku, Pat Cilliers and Lionel Mapoe.
However, they lack the two or three marquee players that have characterised every champion Super Rugby team – Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield for the Bulls, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw for the Crusaders, or the Brumbies’ Stephen Larkham and George Gregan, for example.
Neither do they have depth beyond a competitive 22, and depth will be a crucial element to the success of all teams in an extended schedule.
What then is a realistic expectation for the Lions? A mid-table finish is not beyond them, and, if achieved, should been seen as an exponential improvement.
Making Ellis Park a fortress and shoring up their defence will be central to realising that objective. In 2010 they conceded 72 tries at an average of 5.5 per match, a dreadful return even by their consistently low standards.
I understand that head coach John Mitchell has made defence the cornerstone on which he wants to build the Lions’ resurgence. Supreme fitness facilitates a sustained defensive effort and my information is that players are fitter than they have been in years. Whether they have the structures to complement their conditioning will be a point of interest.
Their attacking play was impressive at times in 2010, but was always undermined by weak defensive displays. Former head coach Dick Muir failed to remedy this facet of play during his tenure, but Mitchell is more technically and tactically astute and should ensure an improvement in this area.
It wouldn’t surprise me if they beat the Bulls in Johannesburg on Saturday. Their belief is yet to be challenged, they’re at home and could profit from the defending champions’ early season rustiness.
Such a result, however, should not elicit talk of the rise of a new force in Super Rugby. They’ll lose as many as they win, but after their diabolical 2010 campaign that would constitute a success.