Chapter 1: All Eyes On Them

 

Elton Jantjies took a long pass from Faf De Klerk. Jantjies was standing flat, as he often does, so as the ball smacked into his hands the two Highlanders defenders in front of him became interested. With Jantjies playing so close to the advantage line they didn’t have a choice.

The Lions were going wide from a ruck, as they often do, but this time their usual joie de vivre was tinged with urgency. They had fought back from a 20-3 halftime deficit against the eventual Super Rugby champions and a score here would, incredibly, take them to a one-point lead.

For Jantjies, time stood still. This is where he felt most comfortable – holding up the ball just a metre or two away from looming opposition. On his inside, replacement flanker Ruaan Lerm was bearing down on the defence like a runaway truck. Jantjies made as if to pop the ball up for the opensider but pulled it back as Lerm thundered past. Not for the Lions the South African orthodoxy of channel one rugby.

At the same time centre Alwyn Hollenbach was cutting in on Jantjies’ outside. Jantjies turned away from Lerm and considered a quick pass to Hollenbach, now on his shoulder, but again demurred. As Hollenbach flew by, Jantjies’ true intentions and the irrepressible nature of the Lions’ DNA revealed themselves. They were turning down the easy option of small gains down the middle and using decoys to create space on the outside. Where most South African teams see rugby players as cudgels, the Lions see them as con artists. Outside centre Harold Vorster would take a simple pass behind Hollenbach’s back to score, completing one of the greatest comebacks of Super Rugby’s 2015 season.

 

What you’ll hear around braais and water coolers is that this year’s tournament is a lost cause. A glut of teams and a confusing format means it’s “not going to be a good watch”. But really, if you’re South African that isn’t true at all. It’s unprecedented that three of our traditional powerhouses would be under command of up-and-coming rookie coaches in one year. The stories of Nollis Marais, Robbie Fleck and Franco Smith will be as compelling as they are distressing; all three cannot be successful at the same time.

The story of the Kings – another team with a fledgling coach – will be shadowed by the off-field shenanigans of their administrators. The Kings story will be a good news story if they can transcend the failings of their union and take the fight to teams looking for easy points in P.E. Up the road in Durban, the Sharks will need to combine Gary Gold’s enlightened philosophies with killer focus and application if they’re going to change a story that has thus far been all prologue and no climax.

And then there is the story of the Lions.

Currie Cup champions, band of brothers, castaways, contenders, entertainers, John Does, mutineers. They are simultaneously underdogs and top dogs, long shots and best bets. A team that lacks name-brand superstars but which would arguably be weakened by their presence.

In many ways that comeback against the Highlanders was a good snapshot of the team. While they could be artful on attack, they could be patchy in defence. While they triumphed in the scrums, they struggled at the breakdown. While they revelled in touchline-to-touchline rugby they sometimes eschewed the value of a close-in street brawl when it was needed. What was never in question was their sense of enterprise, their desire, and their sheer watchability.

Over the next five months (for that is how long the tournament is) The Breakdown will chronicle the story of the Lions season. Using the powerful new Rugby Analytics platform we’ll uncover interesting nuggets of data and tell a deeper story of their campaign. We chose the Lions not just because they’re contenders or because they’re great to watch, but because that comeback victory at Ellis Park showed that they carry with them a spark of evolution for South African rugby.

Johan Ackerman said, “If the country wants to follow us it means they will have to look at the same types of players we have.” The statement was telling. Not just because it shows that the Lions’ success depends on skill, but because Ackerman knows his team are pioneers who can lead us out of the rugby dark ages.

Follow us week by week as we chronicle the South African rugby Renaissance at Ellis Park.

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