Super Rugby

Fine SA Super Rugby vintages: Lions ... the busy bridesmaids

Kwagga Smith clashes with David Havili in the 2017 Super Rugby final... (Gallo Images)
Kwagga Smith clashes with David Havili in the 2017 Super Rugby final... (Gallo Images)

It is sometimes said that the Dutch soccer team of 1974 - the era of Johan Cruyff, and their mesmerising “total football” - might well be the best not to have won the World Cup.

Instead they had to settle for runners-up status to neighbours and arch-rivals West Germany that year, having been pipped 2-1 in the Munich final.

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Hottest candidate for an equivalent hard-luck story in Super Rugby?

Especially if you judge it over a period rather than specific year, then you cannot look too far beyond the Lions of 2016, 2017 and 2018.

There has never previously been a case of a single team gracing the final for three years on the trot, yet failing each time to lift the silverware: the Crusaders were losing finalists in both 2003 and 2004, but then won it in 2005 and 2006.

The Lions weren’t so lucky; their oh-so-near-to-glory era instead ended rather brutally as they slid to ninth overall in 2019 and were even more poorly placed (13th) when the coronavirus cut came in this year’s seemingly ill-fated competition.

But would it be too harsh, in assessing that often thrilling period in the Lions’ case, to say that “nobody remembers the runners-up”?

Theirs, after all, was the best extended spell as serious contenders by a South African outfit since the Bulls’ three titles between 2007 and 2010 - and certainly the most memorable phase at Ellis Park since the rookie days of Super 10 and then-Transvaal first lifting that trophy back in amateur-era 1993.

Considering the increasing snags to the SA cause in the tournament due to mass defections abroad in recent times, those 2016-18 Lions under the supervision of first Johan Ackermann and then his faithful former right-hand man Swys de Bruin got a lot more right than they did wrong ... and also played with a snap and a crackle that earned plaudits across the Super Rugby planet.

Although the showpiece remained stubbornly a bridge too far over the three otherwise prosperous years, the fact that a strong winning culture was installed is reflected in some of the statistics ... not least that the red-and-whites prevailed in 34 out of 46 ordinary-season matches, a win percentage of almost 74%.

It would have looked even better but for the sure signs in 2018, at the end of the run, that the Lions were a waning force: they unusually stuttered through the pre-knockout phase that year, with only nine victories (seven defeats) from 16 clashes.

They were also beneficiaries of the controversial seedings system in the competition, which saw them guaranteed second spot on the overall table behind the Crusaders (who were a gaping 17 point better) despite both the Hurricanes and Chiefs also sporting better hauls.

While the Lions of that season raised their act to play some sparkling rugby in each of the quarter-final (40-23 against the Jaguares at home) and then semi (44-26, Waratahs, also in the Big Smoke), they were well beaten in the Christchurch final (37-18) against the Crusaders.

No, each of the 2016 and 2017 seasons were really when they blew best chances to claim the trophy ... and the latter especially so.

During that particularly dubious period structurally where South African teams would play either the Australian or New Zealand franchises in alternate years, the Lions got the benefit of the indisputably weaker Aussie batch and made that count - for example, a three-game tour Down Under saw them return with a 100 percent win record against the Force, Rebels and Brumbies in that order.

In total, the Lions won an exemplary 14 of their 15 pre-knockout matches, losing only to the Jaguares (36-24) in a trip to Buenos Aires.

They did have a close shave in their home quarter-final against the Sharks, winning it by a narrow 23-21 margin, but then repelled the Hurricanes 44-29 in the semi to raise huge hope that they would be capable of beating the traditionally machine-like Crusaders in the Emirates Airline Park main spectacle.

At the time, no team in Super Rugby had yet been able to cross the Indian Ocean either way to win a final ... but the ‘Saders were clearly motivated by a strong “first time for everything” conviction.

Two tries to the visitors in the first 11 minutes rocked the Lions right back on their heels and then, in the 38th minute, a killer blow to home-town hopes came when flank Kwagga Smith rashly took out David Havili in the air to earn a straight red card.

Already without the services for the showpiece of their key cog at No 8 and inspirational regular captain Warren Whiteley, there was just no way back for the Lions as they blew a tantalising chance to grab the crown on the highveld.

The earlier, similarly gallant campaign of 2016 was marked by a controversial decision - debated and in many cases rued by Lions enthusiasts to this day - by Ackermann to field a significantly weakened combo in the pivotal, last-round trip to play the Jaguares.

The coach opted for freshness among his premier troops for the tough semi-final against the Crusaders (yes, them again) in Johannesburg a week later by keeping them away from the Argentinean exercise.

But as his experimental line-up succumbed to a 34-22 reverse, they were agonisingly pushed to second-placed finish overall, behind the Hurricanes.

Step one in the knockouts was duly, quite impressively achieved as they won 42-25, so purely based on that, Ackermann’s earlier decision looked to have been vindicated.

It did mean, though, that the Lions then had to go long-haul for the final against the Hurricanes in a wet and breezy Wellington, and that task proved beyond them as they were comfortably seen off 20-3.

Those three years had their share of “if only” moments and flashpoints to chew on afterwards, but the Lions’ spirit, progressive playing style and profound sense of unity under Whiteley’s dynamic captaincy nevertheless leaves some treasured memories in Jo’burg and beyond.

The sleight of hand and foot of Elton Jantjies at flyhalf (especially on the rock-hard home surface he so relished), the hot stepping and sniping of Aphiwe Dyantyi and Courtnall Skosan in the widest channels, Franco Mostert’s admirably ceaseless drive and energy in the boiler room, the emergence of Malcolm Marx as a bullocking, world-class hooker ... all those things cannot be taken away from an era where the Lions were a shining enough “silver”.

READ | Fine SA Super Rugby vintages: Sharks 1996-98

READ | Fine SA Super Rugby vintages: Stormers 1999 & 2012

READ | Fine SA Super Rugby vintages: The 'Amaze-Bulls' 2007-10

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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