Super Rugby preview: Lions
With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. First up, the Lions!
Super Rugby returns to Ellis Park in 2014 but fans in Jo'burg shouldn't expect much - the Lions look set to be the tournament's whipping boys, again.
Last Year: The Lions' Super Rugby season was all of 160 minutes long last year as they clawed their way back into the competition by virtue of winning the two-game play-off against the Kings by the skin of their teeth.
2013 was a tumultuous year for the Golden Lions Rugby Union with continued upheaval off the field doing nothing for their financial situation. It speaks volumes that the team from Africa's economic capital will start the 2014 season without a sponsor. Unsurprisingly, a number of players have moved on to greener pastures though a handful were wisely retained via loan agreements.
This year: With 2014 being the Lions Union's 125th anniversary, we would like to say they are at least starting from square one, but the situation is probably worse than that. Many of the players that made them marginally competitive back in 2012 - such as Josh Strauss and Jaco Taute - are no longer around. Almost two thirds of the current squad have never played Super Rugby before. The front-row stocks are looking particularly thin.
Squad depth and experience are going to be massive problems in a competition that runs until mid-July and coach Johan Ackermann has openly admitted that he will need a healthy dose of good fortune to avoid a mid-season crisis. Fly-half Elton Jantjies, wing Anthony Volmink and full-back Andries Coetzee are already notable name on the injury list. The new faces were given a run in the warm-up games but a 57-14 drubbing on home soil at the hands of the Sharks highlighted just how far off the pace they are.
The arrival of Rudolf Straeuli as general manager is significant. The former Springbok coach and commercial director at the Sharks is man experienced in lifting teams out of the doldrums (as a player-coach he helped cash-strapped Bedford avoid relegation in England in the late 1990s).
The Lions have the advantage of starting their campaign with a long stint in South Africa, only going overseas in May, but the lack of any real firepower in their squad points to another long, fruitless season.
Players to watch: The star of the Lions squad is without doubt Elton Jantjies. The Springbok fly-half did not feature in the warm-up games as he faces a race against time to be ready for the start of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Much will depend of whether he stays fit over the course of the year. Veteran lock Franco van der Merwe has a huge task on his hands as he will have to call on all his experience to guide the inexperienced squad. Likewise, captain Warren Whiteley's leadership will be key. Keep an eye on Marnitz Boshoff who will be Jantjies' understudy but has impressed at Currie Cup level.
Noteworthy signings: Willie Wepener, Bees Roux, JW Jonker.
Prospects: The Lions have never finished better than 12th, and that is unlikely to change this year. They will struggle to win on the road and their best chance of a home victory will be against the Rebels in the second-last round. Finishing anywhere other than the foot of the overall table must be seen as a success.
Sat 15 Feb: v Cheetahs - away
Sat 22 Feb: v Stormers - home
Sat 01 Mar: v Bulls - away
Sat 08 Mar: v Sharks - away
Sat 15 Mar: v Blues - home
Sat 22 Mar: v Reds - home
Round 7 BYE
Sat 05 Apr: v Crusaders - home
Sat 12 Apr: v Sharks - home
Sat 19 Apr: Stormers - away
Round 11 BYE
Sat 03 May: v Chiefs - away
Sat 10 May: v Highlanders - away
Sun 18 May: v Waratahs - away
Sat 24 May: v Force - away
Sun 01 Jun: v Bulls - home
Round 17 Aus and NZ Teams only
Fri 04 Jul: v Rebels - home
Sat 12 Jul: v Cheetahs - home