Less than a week until Super Rugby 2011 kick off in it’s new expanded format.
Although our friends in the Cape will argue that the traditional “North v South” game is the Stormers v Bulls, for many Rugby Lovers in Gauteng, the North v South refers to the Jukskei River, and the rivalry between the teams from the country’s Administrative Capital city, and the African continent’s economic “Capital” city.
A Little History
Since the Northern Transvaal Rugby Union broke away from the Transvaal Rugby Football Union in 1938, there has been a deep, simmering rivalry between the two Rugby Unions that at times can border on the fanatical.
Make no mistake, these feelings are felt not only between the respective supporters, but between the players and administrators alike.
These feelings of course, are burned even deeper into some people’s souls when the favourite sons of any of the two teams seek greener Rugby pastures on the opposite bank of the Jukskei.
One doesn’t have to think too hard to remember some of the famous defectors on both side.
During the golden era of Transvaal / Lions Rugby from the mid’ 80′s through to the mid’ 90′s such Blue Bull stalwarts as Jannie Breedt, Uli Schmidt and Rudolph Strauli left Pretoria for the short trek South to the City of Gold, with all three having a significant impact on the success of the Transvaal / Lions teams of the times.
In the opposite direction one can think of players like Bryan Habana and Jaco Pretorious who both headed North and arguably increased their playing worth significantly.
Of course there is also a small matter of the Bulls current head coach who was relieved of his duties whilst at the Lions, and who has undoubtedly had the last laugh on the matter!
To say that the Lions results in Super Rugby in recent times has been disappointing, is perhaps the understatement of the 21th century. Lions supporters though will point to recent developments and try to tell anyone who’ll listen that those dark days are behind them.
But before we look at the future, let’s look at recent results between these two teams.
Here are the FACTS:
The Lions have only made the Super Rugby’s play-offs twice, in 2000 and 2001 (as the Cats), both times under the coaching leadership of New Zealander Laurie Mains.
Both times they lost, in 2000 to the Brumbies, and in 2001 to the Sharks.
In contrast the Bulls have made the play-offs six times, winning the competition on three of those six occasions.
The last time the Lions managed to beat the Bulls in a Super Rugby match was in 2005 in Johannesburg. The score 23 – 17.
Since then (the last 5 seasons) the Lions have really struggled, and the statistics make miserable reading.
Tries: Lions 7, Bulls 20
Points: Lions 61, Bulls 175
Average score: Lions 12,2, Bulls 35
Match points: Lions 1, Bulls 23
In recent months the Lions bank balance has been swelled significantly, firstly by a ground breaking investment deal involving wealthy businessmen Robert Gumede and Ivor Ichikowitz, and secondly by a lucrative sponsorship deal with MTN, arguably Africa’s largest cellular network provider, and the biggest rival of The Bulls main sponsor and the South African title sponsor of the Super Rugby tournament Vodacom.
This windfall has enabled the Lions to go on something of a spending spree, resulting in a number of potentially exciting young players arriving in New Doornfontein to don the Lions jersey, not least of whom is the young Springbok hooker Bandise Maku, who until recently was with Saturday’s opponents from North of the Jukskei.
The Lions President, the former Transvaal and Springbok lock Kevin de Klerk is a proud man, and the results of last season must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
But the steps he and his management have taken to rectify the situation, and the new blood that has been injected into the squad are undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, perhaps the most significant step in my opinion was the recruitment of former New Zealand and Western Force coach John Mitchell just before the start of the Currie Cup last year.
Many knowledgeable Rugby observers will point to the new recruits and say that the Lions have not bought wisely, and that there are no “big name” players to gel the unit together, with the only player with any significant international experience being Butch James who returns from England in order to try to regain favour with the National selectors in this world cup year.
Of course it may well be that John Mitchell chose not to chase any super stars, preferring to work on moulding the bunch of youngsters at his disposal into an effective unit.
Pre-season friendly results would tend to point out that if this is the case, then he (Mitchell) has not done too bad a job.
After losing to the Stormers in a low scoring game in Cape Town, the Lions beat the Sharks convincingly (also in Cape Town), gave the Argentinian provincial champions Tucuman a hiding, followed by a nice win over the Kings by what can only be described as a team of fringe players.
A match against the University of Johannesburg side which the Lions won at a canter (119 – 7) can be considered nothing more than a practice run which would not have told the coach much at all.
But, the game against the Bulls next week is SUPER RUGBY, not a run out in a friendly that counts for nothing.
The Bulls have not added significantly to their squad for this season, but they didn’t need to.
Bjorn Basson joined at the end of last season, and appears to have fitted into the structures well.
The Bulls squad really is a settled unit, and it shows. I for one normally expect the tournament “big guns” like the Bulls and Crusaders to take a few weeks to get into their stride, and always think that the beginning of the competition is the time when teams like the Cheetahs and Lions have their best chance of pulling off a surprise win.
The Bulls certainly blew that theory out of the water last year, when they came out and pulverised the opposition in the first month as if they were 9 year olds standing in the streets of Pamplona when the gates are opened.
THE PLAYERS – HEAD TO HEAD
If we look at the teams within the teams it certainly points to the bulls having a significant advantage.
Front rows: Steenkamp, Botha and Kruger with Chilliboy Rallepele on the bench against a bunch of youngsters who are willing, but not too experienced.
Second Row: Bakkies and Victor with Flippie vd Merwe and Danie Rossouw as back up against Franco vd Merwe and … who? Need we say more?
Loose forwards: Spies, Kuun, Potgeiter, van Veltze, Rossouw, Stegmann etc etc etc. Strong to say the least, but at least here the Lions young trio of Strauss, Whitely and Minnie should be competitive, with “old timers” “Baywatch” Grobbelaar (remember him?) and Wikus van Heerden as back ups.
All in all the Lions didn’t scrum too badly throughout last season, but at times their Line Out was as miserable as a 5 year old who dropped his ice cream on the beach, and sometimes looked like an under 7 B side’s “lollipop scramble”.
If they hope to have a chance on Saturday, the Lions will have to be competitive at the set piece plays, and the young loose forwards will have to win more than their fair share of ball on the ground and in the loose exchanges.
Scrum-half: Fourie du Preez returns, with his Springbok stand in Francois Houghaard to back him up.
The Lions don’t look too bad in this department with John Mitchell having a choice of Jano Vermaak, JP Joubert, Michaell Bondisio and Rory Kockott, depending on who he favours.
We can expect Du Preez to be hungry for action after an extended lay off, and the Lions in general will hope he still has a bit of “ring rust” and that he has a small niggling doubt in his mind about the shoulder.
Fly half: Morne Steyn, against, well does it really matter who he’s up against? Young Elton Janties looks set to get the call from Mitchell, with possibly Andre Pretorious warming the bench.
No matter who Mitchell decides to throw into the melting pot, they have a job and a half on their hands.
Jantjies showed in the Currie Cup that he has a real future, but this is Super Rugby, and things are just that little bit harder and faster. It’s been said “if you’re good enough you’re old enough”, as Patrick Lambie showed for the Sharks last year. Lets see if this young Lion has what it takes.
Pretorious is well, still Pretorious. When he’s hot, he’s white hot, but when he’s not he’s like that 5 year old’s ice cream in the sand. You can normally tell in the first 5 minutes, so us Lions supporters won’t have to wait long to see.
Where do we start with a Bulls backline that oozes Springboks everywhere you look?
Centres: Wynand Olivier and Jaco Pretorious (if fit) against Doppies le Grange and Waylon Murray.
Provided Doppies and Waylon hold their defensive lines, are fit enough, and don’t let any tackles slip, they could hold their own. One slip up though, and it’s goodbye Meraai.
Olivier and Pretorious should be ably backed up by Stefan Watermeyer and Stephan Dippennaar, whilst the Lions look really thin on quality depth in this area.
If it goes pear shaped for the Lions here, it could be a long evening.
Back Three: For the Bulls, Bjorn Basson will be eager to start 2011 where he ended 2010.
Crossing the try line as many times as possible, especially as this will help eradicate the painful memory of how his particular end of year tour finished.
Joining him will be a combination of fellow Springboks Akona Ndungane, Jaco vd Westhuizen &, Zane Kirchner together with Stephan Dippenaar, and Gerhard vd Heever.
A strong bunch to say the least.
For the Lions, some players who once again have shown potential, with Tonderai Chavanga, and Lionel Mapoe being thrown into the mix with youngsters like Wandile Mjeveku, Michael Killian and Jaco Taute.
A group certainly not as consistently strong as their Bulls opposition, but one that on the right day, in the right conditions could spring a surprise or two.
At first glance, the Bulls look too strong for the Lions right across the back three, but if John Mitchell and Wayne Taylor have their conditioning program sorted, and the Lions players have put in the hard yards pre-season, they may be able to hold out.
Frans Ludeke needs to prove nothing. The most successful South African Super Rugby head coach there is. He has a professional team of individuals around him who will have made sure every T has been crossed and evey I dotted.
As for the Lions, well in my opinion John Mitchell is their most significant and shrewdest buy of the last 10 years. He’s proven with firstly the All Blacks and then the Western Force that he has what it takes to mould a successful team. Perhaps even more important is the fact that as a Super Rugby coach he knows how to beat the Bulls, having done so twice in the last 5 years, something that no Lions coach in this period could achieve.
Coca Cola Park will be an expectant place come 7pm on Saturday evening, with what for Johannesburg in recent years will be a (relatively) large crowd, swelled by the Father and Son camp that Lions families will be enjoying on Friday night at the Johannesburg Stadium across the road.
Expect there to be as much blue in the stadium as red, as the Rugby starved public from Pretoria trek South to watch their beloved Bulls start their defence of the Super Rugby title.
The Champions of 2010 against the wooden spoonists. All the facts, and history point to it being a stroll in the park for the Bulls, but this is the first week of competition, and strange things tend to happen.
Expect the Lions to come out and start at the speed of a Buggati Veron, trying to unsettle the Bulls.
My head says the Bulls have to win by at least 10 points, but my not insignificant gut tells me that this Lions team will be up for the challenge, and my Superbru says Lions by 5.
Gotta stay with the faith.