Cape Town – Strong grapevine talk that Jaco Kriel, one of the critical figures in the Lions’ Super Rugby vitality of the last two seasons, will leave for Gloucester after one further campaign in the southern hemisphere competition only increases the urgency for them to bag the title in 2018.
Signs are mounting that the next few months may provide their make-or-break opportunity to claim the silverware, before a more pronounced breakup of the side former head coach Johan Ackermann painstakingly nurtured ahead of his switch to the English Premiership club Kriel now looks very likely to be plucked away to.
The Lions are successive Super Rugby runners-up for 2016 and 2017, having fallen at the showpiece hurdle each time, first to the Hurricanes away and then earlier this year to the Crusaders, more gallingly in their Johannesburg den.
Third time lucky, then?
Well, simply by still having a healthy nucleus of the personnel who have spearheaded their impressive crack at the overall honours for two years – continuity is so often a most handy ally – the Lions should be firmly thereabouts again, at the very least.
Many of their squad will have learned vital lessons from successive seasons of stumbling at the final hurdle, and only have increased both their street-smartness and pure determination to go all the way in 2018.
Off the field, a key to their health or otherwise in the new season will naturally be how competently Swys de Bruin fares in his maiden season as a Super Rugby head coach after previously serving as Ackermann’s trusted deputy.
He headed up the Golden Lions’ Currie Cup 2017 campaign in the immediate aftermath of last season’s Super Rugby and, minus many of the players who front their challenge in the broader southern-hemisphere competition, they ended as acceptable enough third-placed side on the table and beaten semi-finalists.
In broad terms, his Super Rugby 2018 ideology is unlikely to differ too violently from the Ackermann one the playing staff had got increasingly, agreeably acclimatised to.
On the plus side, too, players who succumbed to long-term injury last season like inspirational captain Warren Whiteley and lively wing/fullback Ruan Combrinck ought to return well refreshed for a big push for the elusive title.
Throw in the presence of other established Jo’burg favourites like Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan, Andries Coetzee, Harold Vorster and Ross Cronje, plus virtually every member of their frontline tight five – including the now genuinely world-class hooker Malcolm Marx – and Lions enthusiasts have good reason to expect largely “normal service” again in 2018.
If any of the stellar New Zealand franchises, for instance, were offered two current Lions players to bolster their own teams, I would suggest they’d target the juggernaut Marx first … and then Kriel.
Which is why it is so important that the Highveld outfit try to cash in to the maximum on the dynamic loose forward’s eighth (he debuted in 2011) and probable last season of Super Rugby for them.
Throughout their fairly prolonged status as a top-tier force in the competition and also one of the most watchable, enterprising outfits, Kriel has been a pivotal element to their strike plans.
His great mobility is worth gold both on defence, where he is a committed track-backer of note, and attack as he is akin to the sprightliest of backline players for ball-carrying stealth, offloading skills and ability to punch wicked holes.
Just as he was confirming his international value for the Springboks in the last Test season, Kriel fell victim to a shoulder injury during the Australasian leg of the Rugby Championship, requiring surgery.
It is expected to keep him sidelined for the first handful of rounds of the new Super Rugby campaign, but the 28-year-old dynamo will return to duty in good time for the height of their programme.
He had stepped in, relatively seamlessly, as acting captain when Whiteley was ruled out of the climax of the 2017 competition, only underlining the extent to which he is a fulcrum player for the Lions.
Despite denials from his management, it is impossible not to suspect significant fire accompanying smoke when it comes to the reported rumours this week that Kriel will be seduced into the Gloucester fold – probably in time for the 2018/19 northern season? – by former mentor Ackermann, who has already taken son Ruan with him in a further move that doesn’t exactly aid the Lions’ go-one-step-higher intentions.
He is at exactly the phase of his professional career, in age terms, where South African players are especially likely to want to beef up their incomes in weightier currencies than ours.
And if Kriel does swap hemispheres on inevitably lucrative terms, what price certain other Lions stalwarts also going to Gloucester specifically (coaches will always be attracted toward “who they know”), or clubs elsewhere in Europe, after the 2018 Super Rugby season?
I just pick up a strong sense that the spine of the present Lions squad, who have grafted so hard to become title-threat material, may be snapped after one last stab at the crown.
Yes, there are some decent prospects in their very early twenties coming through at Emirates Airline Park, but other teams across the Super Rugby spectrum will have spirited next-generation plans of their own and we can’t be at all sure that the likes of Madosh Tambwe, Marco Jansen van Vuren and Len Massyn will eventually turn out to be Super Rugby “gold”.
Here’s another thought: even before you begin to assess the likely strength in the short- to medium-term future of Super Rugby teams from “across the ditch”, there’s a good enough chance back home that the Sharks and Stormers, especially, are poised to narrow or even eliminate the gap on the Lions.
Remember that there is now, in a more streamlined competition, only one South African conference to aim to top in ordinary season -- not the relative luxury of two that marked each of the last two campaigns – for a healthy knockout seeding.
Also to consider is the phenomenon, especially prevalent in the Lions set-up, of players spending the South African off-season (a period when physical and mental rest and rejuvenation is the ideal) earning very useful top-up wages in Japanese club rugby.
Say what you like about lower intensity there and so on, round-the-clock rugby will, eventually, take a damaging toll.
Better strike in 2018, Lions, while there is still sufficient heat to that iron …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing