Super Rugby, in a tough concept year, is now on its hiatus for the June Internationals. When you cast your eye over the tournament so far there will be a few things that strike you. The Sunwolves, Kings and Jaguares have struggled and instead of being a welcoming addition have been the whipping boys, filling three of the bottom four spots in the combined log. The Cheetah project under Franco Smith has a long way to go, for all their glimpse of brilliance, like Sergeal Petersons try this weekend, they infuriate with an immaturity that would make Justin Bieber fans blush. The New Zealand sides continue to underline why the land of the long cloud are the rugby union kings with their bottom side, the Blues, sitting just four points back on the top Australian side. But the real story of Super Rugby has been the translation of Currie Cup form into Super Rugby by the Emirates Lions. The Lions, having played the NZ sides not the Aussies, sit just three points behind the Crusaders and are South Africa’s best chance of breaking a Super Rugby drought. We look at a few reasons why the Egoli side are sitting pretty at the pause of the Southern Hemisphere tournament.
You will find very few people that go against the notion that Johan Ackermann could be the next Springbok coach. The extremely likable mentor of the Lions has now been in charge for four years at Ellis Park and in this time has turned a team with immense potential into a team with immense promise. The mental fortitude displayed by the Johannesburg men whenever they face a bad result is evident to all who will look and the team has emerged from their expulsion from Super Rugby to be the leading team in the country. Ackermann has already celebrated two Currie Cup final appearances and with the rampant undefeated victory last year they broke through with the belief that they could win, its a belief that has been evident in their best Super Rugby campaign since disbanding from the Cats.
There was a fair amount of chatter on Social media about the Lions skipper being made Springbok captain. There was also a reasonable amount of disappointment when it was awarded to Adriaan Strauss. This itself should be fairly telling of the popularity of Whiteley, who is not even a guaranteed first choice for the Springboks. Such is his influence on the Emirates Lions that few would have batted an eyelid if he had been selected. Whiteley’s brand of leadership is both inspirational and by example, as evidenced by his immense tackle count this season which is bettered only by Franco Mostert. There must be a way to play both Whiteley and Vermeulen in the green and gold!
One of the hallmarks of this season for the Emirates Lions has been the willingness to run with ball in hand. The Lions are battling for the lead in Super Rugby but also are in the top four of every important attacking stat including Metres run (2nd), loose balls collected (3rd), clean breaks (4th) and defenders beaten (1st). To top it off, the exciting brand of rugby employed by Whiteley and co has produced 55 tries in the tournament, second only to the Chiefs (56). With the Lions showing they can play a brand of rugby only really employed by New Zealand sides previously, they have become increasingly exciting to watch. A back-line that is inspired by Faf de Klerk has also seen the imperiously talented Lionel Mapoe deliver on his talent with a tournament leading 9 tries, while Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck have made themselves hard to ignore for Springbok selection.
In big matches discipline can prove so costly. The Cheetahs, Bulls, Kings and Sharks all top the count for penalties conceded, something that has been a consistent problem with South African rugby. The Lions have given away a paltry 95 penalties in 12 games, that’s less than 8 penalties a game. This itself is the second best in the tournament and further cemented by the fact that they have only conceded one yellow card in the tournament, alongside the Stormer’s as the most disciplined side in the tournament. When a team plays an expansive game their discipline often goes out the window, as can be seen by the Cheetahs, but the Lions have tightened the ship and proved to be entertaining while observing the rules in place.
Basically what we get from this is that in Super Rugby 2016 there is one Super South African side and that is the Emirates Lions. Its must be flippen lekker to be a supporter of the Lions right now!