Winning must define Mitch’s mongrels

MARK KEOHANE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says it’s time for the Lions to deliver in Super Rugby.

John Mitchell’s Lions deserved their 2011 Currie Cup success, but it is their 2012 Super Rugby campaign that will prove more telling. And it has to be a results-driven one.

Putting in good performances is no longer good enough. Playing good rugby is also not good enough. Winning in 2012 is what has to define the Lions.

Mitchell’s mongrels (said with great affection) are no longer a young squad. This will be their fourth tournament campaign with Mitchell and for all the heroics of their domestic high, the road to the play-offs was made easier because of the World Cup. The Lions, it cannot be ignored, were not affected by national call-ups. There was no disruption from the Super Rugby tournament into the Currie Cup. No other team had such a luxury.

Mitchell’s side struggled in Super Rugby in 2011 because of poor decision-making, inexperience and an inability to translate good intentions into victories.

For every good performance there was the converse a week later. Many of the results were defeats by less than seven points, but that should never be the measurement of a team with any aspiration. To win you only need one more point than your opponent. Those who beat the Lions may feel they won with something to spare.

Lions president Kevin de Klerk has spoken glowingly of Mitchell and his influence at the union. De Klerk said he never stopped believing in the New Zealander and never doubted for a moment that he could transform a team – mocked as circus Lions – into something a bit more intimidating.

The euphoria among the Lions players, management, administration and supporters was understandable after the Currie Cup final win against the Sharks. But the reality of the Lions is that until they deliver a winning Super Rugby season little will have changed.

I am not suggesting they have to win the tournament, but the expectation has to be a top-six – and play-off – finish. The Currie Cup is a feeder competition to Super Rugby. The strength of a team is what they do in Super Rugby and not the Currie Cup.

There is no escaping this reality and the only way to give the Currie Cup success of 2011 credibility is for those same players to win more than they lose against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa’s best. This will also be an important season for Mitchell, who has a reputation for being able to fix a team but not always deliver champions.

I don’t think the Lions have a good enough squad to win the Super Rugby title, so it would be unfair to demand of Mitchell to add it to their Currie Cup crown, but if the hype of dominating a watered down Currie Cup tournament is to be accepted as an accurate reflection of their strength, they can’t be excused a season in which they finish in the bottom three and claim the odd victory.

The Lions in 2011 were the good-news story of South African rugby, more so because it allowed everyone to forget the Springboks’ Tri-Nations and World Cup disasters, in which the Boks finished last in the former and equalled their worst-ever performance at the latter.

The Lions can’t afford to be an illusion similar to the Boks of 2011. There has been no internal analysis of where the Boks went wrong in 2011. There has simply been a collective belief that the Boks were done a dirty by a New Zealand referee.

There has to be a bit more realism attached to the story of the Lions and there are still questions that have to be answered. We’ll get that in the 2012 Super Rugby tournament.

What we will also get is the return of the Bulls. I’m backing them to be the South African team to beat, which doesn’t excuse the Lions finishing outside the top six.

– This column first appeared in the Jan-Feb issue of SA Rugby magazine. The March issue is on sale from 15 February. Click here to subscribe to the print or digital edition.