Lions ready for new era

Johan Ackermann believes the Lions’ friendly matches will ensure that they are well prepared for their Super Rugby promotion-relegation tie.

In 2013 the South African rugby fraternity will witness a new-look Lions outfit play against an unique selection of opposition, which includes Samoa, Namibia, and French minnows Mont-de-Marsan and Grenoble. Heck, there’s even the Chicago Lions, one of the top clubs in the USA.

Their campaign (dubbed the Lions Challenge) will kick off against Russia at Ellis Park on Saturday.

Considering the huge downfall expected after Saru announced the Jozi franchise’s Super Rugby relegation late last year, the Lions administrators have done a fine job to organise a schedule of competitive matches ahead of the South African Super Rugby promotion-relegation play-offs in July/August. All home matches will also be broadcast on SuperSport.

Ackermann, who succeeded John Mitchell as Lions head coach, has the task of preparing the team as they aim to play their way back into Super Rugby. And he’s confident his players will deliver on that goal.

‘We will be ready to compete for our place in Super Rugby,’ Ackermann told keo.co.za. ‘This season is a special and exciting challenge for us. Facing the likes of Russia, Samoa and the French clubs will be a new experience for everybody.

‘We’re looking forward to the road ahead this season, which will prepare us for the promotion-relegation play-offs.’

The Lions will also have the opportunity to play against the other five South African Super Rugby franchises. However, it’s unlikely that the opposing coaches will field full-strength teams as the competition will be their biggest priority and the Springboks will have Test duty in June.

This doesn’t faze Ackermann.

‘People need to remember that we are also a rebuilding, young team,’ he said. ‘We lost many of our top players last year – some of them have signed for other teams while others are loaned out. In the positions where we’ve lost players, there are new players filling in. And if those players are not of the same quality, they will need to improve. They’ll get the opportunity to do so during the year.

‘So if the other South African teams field some of their fringe players, it will still be a competitive match for us. There’s quality depth among the South African Super Rugby franchises.’

There’s also the question of how many loaned-out players the Lions will retain for the Super Rugby promotion-relegation play-offs. Jaco Taute has already told this site that he will stick with the Stormers if he enjoys his stint in the Cape. The same could apply to the other players in their respective destinations, like Elton Jantjies (Stormers), Lionel Mapoe (Bulls) and Francois van der Merwe (Sharks).

Ackermann says those decisions will be made at a later date.

‘We’ll have to review the different scenarios when we get there. Our Super Rugby relegation opened the door for our best players to leave. If we don’t get into Super Rugby next year, more will leave. That’s the harsh reality.

‘That’s why it’s important to win the promotion-relegation play-offs and work our way back into Super Rugby. We’ll have to be smart in the way we incorporate the players who return from other franchises. If they strengthen the team, we’ll start them. If they need to be eased back into our game plan, they’ll come off the bench.

‘We are focused on the main goal, which is getting back into Super Rugby.’

LIONS’ 2013 SCHEDULE:
19 January: vs Russia, Ellis Park (7pm)
26 January: vs Cheetahs, Ellis Park (5pm)
2 February: vs Bulls, Orlando Stadium (3pm)
9 February: vs Kings, Ellis Park (TBC)
23 February: vs Namibia in Windhoek (TBC)
16 March: vs Mont de Marsan, Ellis Park (7:30pm)
13 April: vs US Invitational, California (TBC)
20 April: vs North American Barbarians, Vancouver (TBC)
27 April: vs Chicago Lions, Chicago (TBC)
11 May: vs Agen, Ellis Park (3pm)
1 June: vs Samoa, Ellis Park (3pm)
8 June: vs French Barbarians, Ellis Park (2pm)
15 June: vs Stormers, Ellis Park (2pm)
21 June: vs Sharks, Ellis Park (7pm)
12 July: vs Montpellier, Ellis Park (7pm)
20 July: vs Grenoble, Ellis Park (2.30pm)
27 July: Promotion-relegation play-off, TBC (TBC)
3 August: Promotion-relegation play-off, Ellis Park (TBC)

By Gareth Duncan