Cape Town – The Lions, clear underdogs for Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Crusaders in Christchurch, can take heart from at least one pleasing statistical phenomenon in their favour.
They have developed a tidy little habit, stretching back to the 2015 season, of hitting the ground running in Antipodean climes.
In other words, their “game one” record on tour in New Zealand and/or Australia is pretty impressive in that time: a win percentage of 80%.
This, of course, is a single-game pilgrimage for the showpiece – and one of immense importance as they go all out to break a two-year pattern as runners-up in the competition, before shedding several stalwarts to European employment – but it should nevertheless be heartening to their fans that they appear to acclimatise fairly swiftly when crossing the Indian Ocean.
The Lions, in the four-season period encompassed, have won an encouraging four of five relevant matches at the very outset of Australasian treks.
Already featuring the nucleus of the players who have served them so spiritedly to the present, the pattern began in 2015 when they weren’t even yet at the lofty sort of levels they’ve occupied consistently between 2016 and 2018 – the Johannesburg outfit ended eighth out of 15 teams that year.
But the four-match tour kicked off on a healthy note when they pipped the Blues 13-10 at Albany, Ruan Combrinck’s 63rd minute try putting them ahead for the first time in a grim old scrap; they then survived a desperate late home-team onslaught for the precious result.
In a sign that the Lions were already slowly building into a credible Super Rugby force, current “survivors” from that match include Franco Mostert, Warren Whiteley, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Harold Vorster, Lionel Mapoe, Ruan Combrinck, Andries Coetzee, plus then-substitutes Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer and Howard Mnisi.
Then, in the 2016 season when the Lions went on to their first of three final appearances in a row, they also got off to an Antipodean tour flier – against better foes, too – by upsetting the Chiefs 36-32 in Hamilton.
It was a four-tries-all thriller (the Lions’ quartet going to Messrs Marx, Skosan, Whiteley and Combrinck) but flyhalf Jantjies’ 16-point contribution off the tee also went a long way to securing the unexpected outcome.
Admittedly that match came after they had already stopped off in Tokyo to beat the Sunwolves in Tokyo, but it was still an encouraging way to begin an Australasian leg … especially as it was desperately early in the competition and the Lions had not even had the luxury of a cobwebs-removing home match before setting off for foreign shores from round one.
The one “first game off the plane” experience in Australasia that went pear-shaped for Whiteley’s men in the period identified, of course, was the 2016 showpiece, when they fought gamely for long periods but were eventually undone 20-3 by the Hurricanes in Wellington.
However, in the following season the Lions restored their winning ways for first-up match on tour, beating the Force 24-15 in Perth - signalling the start of an unbeaten, all-Aussie visit (victories also against the Rebels and Brumbies).
Jantjies notched the bonus-point try (for a 3-0 margin against the now-banished Western Australians) in that match right on 80 minutes, converting it himself.
Earlier this season, in perhaps the best example of the Lions’ increasing relish for starting like a house on fire in Australasia, they clinically shut out the Waratahs 29-0 in Sydney, aided by tries from Madosh Tambwe, Kwagga Smith, Marnus Schoeman and Vorster.
The Lions clearly do something right – a process begun by former head coach Johan Ackermann, and seemingly carried on by Swys de Bruin – in ensuring they are fresh and vibrant whenever they begin rosters, regardless of duration, in New Zealand and/or Australia.
It may include often enough timing their departures to (what they regard as) perfection.
De Bruin elected this week, for example, to delay their long-haul departure to Monday, rather than following the formula usually adopted by several other SA outfits of setting off on Sunday, often still nursing the bruises of the previous day’s match.
If that’s the best medicine, Lions fans will be fervently hoping the “muti” continues to work for them as they brace for the challenge of the Crusaders juggernaut …
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