Lions ‘on track’ for Super Rugby

John Mitchell says the Lions are making good progress ahead of the upcoming Super Rugby campaign, despite a lack of warm-up matches.

The Lions have been South Africa’s least successful Super Rugby franchise over the last five years. Since their split from the Cats before the 2007 campaign, they have only recorded 14 wins out of 68 matches – which is a winning ratio of 20.6%. They’ve also featured in the bottom three of the overall table every season.

After their surprise Currie Cup triumph in 2011, however, there is a public expectation for an improved showing in Super Rugby this year. But already there are concerns about the readiness of the Lions squad as they’ve only played two warm-up matches – against the Stormers (lost 28-6) and a Border-based Southern Kings outfit (won 88-0). This means they’ve only tested themselves against one side that boasts Super Rugby quality players.

Despite this, head coach John Mitchell believes his team are on track with their preparations ahead of their first match against the Cheetahs in Johannesburg next Saturday.

‘It’s a long season ahead mate,’ Mitchell told keo.co.za. ‘The fact that we’ve only played two warm-up matches doesn’t mean we are underprepared. We have to pace ourselves. The players have been working very hard at training during the pre-season and things are looking good. What we’ve been doing isn’t something I want to reveal, but I can say that conditioning coach Wayne Taylor and the medical team are doing a fantastic job with the guys. There’s still more progress to be made over the next week and a half. When the competition starts, we’ll take things one week at a time.’

The Lions fielded their strongest possible team against a weakened Southern Kings side in George on Tuesday evening, and scored 13 tries in the 88-point hammering as flanker Derick Minnie, wing Deon van Rensburg, flanker Cobus Grobbelaar, flyhalf Elton Jantjies and hooker Callie Visagie grabbed a brace each. With this being their final team trial run, Mitchell said the main objective is to prepare his senior players for next weekend.

‘We ticked all the boxes we wanted to against the Kings,’ said Mitchell. ‘For us, it was irrelevant that the Kings fielded a weakened team. The important thing was our team performance and we did very well. The only setback was our young lock [Ruan Botha] getting injured, but otherwise it was a successful outing.

‘We now turn our focus to managing our senior players for our Super Rugby opener next weekend. Guys like Wikus van Heerden, Franco van der Merwe, CJ van der Linde and Michael Rhodes. They’re not ruled out with injuries, it’s a case of making sure they will be ready for the match against the Cheetahs. That’s the main priority now.’

Mitchell is also positive that his players won’t be affected by the franchise’s current off-field drama. The Lions’ financial woes have been well documented in the media while there is speculation that the Lions will face a South African Super Rugby relegation battle as Sanzar are likely to turn down Saru’s proposal to enter six franchises in 2013.

‘We worked hard to incorporate a close, family environment within the squad last year. So we’ve distanced ourselves from the all the off-field stuff, which is all still speculation. Nothing has been confirmed and nothing is for sure. Those are things we can’t control. We have to focus on the stuff we can control, and that’s the rugby.’

By Gareth Duncan