Super Rugby

ANALYSIS | Burger, EW arrivals suggest season of switches beckons at Lions

Burger Odendaal. (AFP)
Burger Odendaal. (AFP)
  • Burger Odendaal and EW Viljoen's arrivals at Ellis Park signal statements of intent, but it also raises some interesting points.
  • Both men, who currently play as centres, are bulky and known for their physicality, suggesting the Lions are placing a new premium on solidity.
  • But they also clog up a midfield that also features more nimble talents such as Wandisile Simelane.
  • It's understood that Simelane might be earmarked to play fullback in future, illustrating that the Lions might have to switch others too.

Over the past two days, the Lions have made a substantial statement of intent by recruiting Bulls captain Burger Odendaal and former Stormer EW Viljoen.

The economic environment for those buys has admittedly been rather fortuitous.

Odendaal has been one of the best paid players at Loftus - reportedly pocketing an amount in excess of R3 million annually - while Viljoen was settling in for a new chapter in England at Leicester.

In a "normal" player market, it's unlikely that these two players would've ended up at Ellis Park.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the landscape and, by all accounts, the Lions have swooped in to complete a few interesting deals.

Economics though isn't the most intriguing aspect of Odendaal and Viljoen's respective arrivals.

Instead, it suggests a fundamental re-alignment of the Lions' approach to backline play.

Last month, Ivan "Cash" van Rooyen, the franchise's head coach, told Sport24 that lockdown had provided him and his coaching staff an opportunity to conduct a comprehensive and critical review of their playing structures and game-plan.

The Lions' DNA remains intact - how else would one explain stalwarts like Willem Alberts, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Dreyer returning? - but Van Rooyen noted that their on-field product perhaps needed a few tweaks.

Odendaal and Viljoen's signings are a clear indication that the team has identified a need for more bulk to complement the more nimble and agile talents of men like Wandisile Simelane, Manny Rass and Elton Jantjies.

It's important to point out that this isn't a move towards stampkar (bumper car) rugby that so many of us dread, rather a pleasing acknowledgement that sometimes you need a few players to go direct to create the momentum for that famed expansive approach that led the franchise to three consecutive Super Rugby finals.

27-year-old Odendaal, who was actively courted by the Lions after matriculating from Monument in 2011, is 1.87m tall and weighs in excess of 100kg, explaining why he's been the Bulls' rock in midfield for the past five years.

Viljoen, at 25, is even taller at 1.92m and could easily bulk up from his already fairly imposing 95kg frame.

Furthermore, meatier centres in Doornfontein aren't unprecedented - it's a process that started last year already when Dan Kriel, who's bigger than both his new team-mates, moved up from Cape Town.

However, the Lions' focus on a bit more ruggedness raises a very important question: where does it leave the pocket rockets like Simelane? 

Sport24 has reliably learnt that there have been discussions over whether the former Junior Springbok star might need to consider a switch to a different position.

Fullback has been mooted as a slot where the 22-year-old, who recently penned a contract extension, can really shift to a higher gear.

Not only would Simelane be granted extra space on attack, he would also be able to develop a strong kicking game as he can boot the ball with both feet.

His switch would also free up what has now become a clogged midfield.

In these austere times, seven centres - Odendaal, Viljoen, Kriel, Simelane, Rass, Duncan Matthews and Louritz van der Schyff - is a luxury bordering on wastefulness. 

It wouldn't be unexpected then to see other players joining Simelane in finding new numbers on their backs.

Viljoen's previous experience at fullback and wing was touted as early as his unveiling on social media on Tuesday, while Matthews has been a winger for most of his career at senior level.

Too much versatility in a squad is sometimes a curse, but some proper thought could render it very exciting too.

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