JOHANNESBURG – THE Lions face a tough challenge in their opening Super Rugby encounter against a Hurricanes side brimming with All Blacks in Johannesburg on Friday.
A year ago the Lions were introduced back into the competition after a year in the wilderness and punched way above its weight.
What followed was their best ever winning record in the competition of seven victories from 16 matches driven by a desire to play with the ball in hand.
The aura of uncertainty that surrounded them in 2014 which proved to be a handy weapon will no longer apply as the team would have sussed them out by now.
One thing going for the Lions is that they have grown their depth and their experience which coach Johan Ackermann believed would create expectations of an improvement from last year.
“There are expectations from the supporters that we are really competitive this year but this is a funny competition where you can have a good season but only win six or seven games,” Ackermann said.
“We are not going to focus on that, we are going to focus on the Hurricanes and take it from there.
“Hopefully the rugby we play will live up to our standards and not think that because we have our second season together, and have more experience that we can take it for granted.”
While the Hurricanes have named seven All Blacks such as Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Ben Franks, Cory Jane and Conrad Smith in their starting line-up, the Lions had a settled look about them.
The run-on side features only two changes from the team that lost the Currie Cup final to Western Province in Cape Town last year.
The only major changes were the selection of the 20-year-old Malcolm Marx at hooker and Andries Coetzee at fullback.
The Lions players will take a lot of confidence from 2014 with Marnitz Boshoff, Julian Redelinghuys, Jaco Kriel, Ruan Dreyer and Warren Whiteley getting Springbok call-ups.
The side has a much greener tinge from a year ago when they only had Elton Jantjies and Franco van der Merwe as capped Springbok players.
Lions captain Warren Whiteley said if the team wanted to improve on last year’s 12th place position overall they needed greater continuity.
“Last year we performed in parts winning four matches then losing four and if you look at the top sides they might have a bad day but it is about how you revive that form,” Whiteley said.
“We want to be at the top and compete against the top side, so it is important for us to quickly get out of the hole when things aren’t going our way.”
Ackermann believed the Hurricanes would be following an expansive approach and warned against giving the Kiwis turnover ball.
“I think they will run if they get the opportunity but it depends on how they treat the altitude with the quality they have like Barrett, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane and Savea, you would probably want to get the ball to them,” he said.
“Like any New Zealand side they would look for turnovers, look to counter and they have a mobile pack as well.” -Sapa