Providing the grunt in the heart of the scrum, as well as the means to win ball in the line-outs, this group of BIG men are responsible for ensuring a continuous supply of quality first phase ball for the team.
Let’s open with the players who did the hard yards in last years campaign.
The next instalment will look at the ever improving and exciting loose forwards.
FRANCO van der MERWE
Name: Franco van der Merwe
Physical: 1.98m; 114kg
Born: 14.03.83, Paarl
Province: Golden Lions
Provincial Caps: 139 (Career); 81 (Lions)
Provincial Points: 80 (16t)
Provincial Debut: 2004 v Lions (Leopards)
Super Rugby Caps: 60
Super Rugby Points: 25 (5t)
Super Rugby Debut: 2007 v Waratahs
When one thinks of Franco and his super Rugby carreer, one tends to forget that he has played SIXTY Super Rugby matches dating back to 2007, nearly 5 YEARS.
Originally a loose forward, Franco was retreaded into a lock forward out of necessity for for a Union who, at the time were battling for quality second row forwards and the line out possession that comes with it. This coupled with the success that Franco has achieved, albeit in a largely losing cause, is testament to the palyers’ ability, determination and will to succeed.
Considered by many critics to be a “lightweight” lock, this is preconception is dismissed by Franco’s vital statistics where he streches the tape to just under the 2m mark, and tips the scale at 114kg.
A hard working player who is secure on his own line-out ball and carries the football strongly, while making more than his fair share of tackles and ball steals on the ground.
One of the Lions senior players, Franco has previously captained the side at both Currie Cup and super Rugby level, an ability that should go a long way to settling the youngsters among the Lions pack of forwards.
WIKUS van HEERDEN
Name: Wikus van Heerden
Physical: 1.93m; 107kg
Born: 25.02.79, Johannesburg
Province: Golden Lions
Provincial Caps: 114 (Career); 99 (Lions)
Provincial Points: 115 (23t)
Provincial Debut: 2001 v Bulls
Super Rugby Caps: 96 (Career)
Super Rugby Points: 90 (18t)
Super Rugby Debut: 2003 v Stormers
Test Caps: 14
Test Points: 5 (1t)
Test Debut: 2003 v Scotland
Another of the Lions most senior players, AND a retreaded flank, this son of former Blue Bull and Springbok great Moaner van Heerden was welcomed back from Europe with open arms by both the Lions management and fans alike.
However, it soon became apparent that Wikus had lost a yard or too of pace, and was struggling to earn a regular place on the side of the Lions pack. John Mitchell though knows quality when it jumps up and bites him, and soon had Wikus doing duty in the engine room that is the second row.
Wikus took to the task at hand like a duck to water, and has arguably bought a new era to his carreer and very possibly kept it (his carreer) alive for some time to come.
Like Franco vd Merwe, Wikus is dependable on his own ball, and does his share in the scrums, but excels in the tight loose, often making vital breaks and breaking tackles that show his loose forward pedigree.
Having more than a decade of provincial experience behind him, this veteran who will celebrate his 33rd birhday on the day the Lions get their 2012 Super Rugby campaign under way, and needs just 4 matches to make the magical century of Super Rugby caps.
I expect we will see Wikus quite regularly in the initial phases of the competition, and as the young locks in the squad gain more experience and confidence, we should see Wikus playing a prominent role off the bench as games develop and cool heads with the ability to analyse and carry games to victory are needed. Experience can’t be bought, it’s gained through yeas of hard work. Wikus has it in buckets full.
Name: Hendrik Roodt
Physical: 1.98m; 123kg
Born: 06.11.87, Lichtenburg
Province: Golden Lions
Provincial Caps: 45 (Career)
Provincial Points: 20 (4t)
Provincial Debut: 2007 v Sharks
Super Rugby Caps: 1
Super Rugby Points: -
Super Rugby Debut: 2010 (Waratahs)
This (not so) young lock forward has an interesting and somewhat varied history.
A former Blue Bulls age group player, he found himself in Australia where he made his Super Rugby debut for the Waratahs against the Stromers in 2009.
Returning to South Africa after the conclusion of the 2010 Super Rugby competition he found himself at Griquas, where a Currie Cup campaign followed with performances that were strong enough, despite a season shortening injury, to earn him a place in the Cheetahs 2011 Super Rugby squad.
He was deemed surplus to requirements by the Bloemfontein based franchise, and after a Super Rugby campaign where he failed to make it on to the field, his services were snapped up by the resurgent Lions outfit looking for young second row blood to take the team forward.
Expect this hard as nails young man from Lichtenburg to become more and more prominent as the Super Rugby campaign, with initial game time being from the reserves bench.
This young man had coach John Mitchen waxing lyrical regarding his shortened performance (due to injury) for the Lions against the Southern Kings in a recent compulsory friendly.
A product of Western Province’ age group Rugby, as well as Varcity Cup, Greef is considered an investment for the future by John Mitchell.
Expect Greef to gain an increasing amount of game time from the bench as the Super Rugby season progresses, and coach John Mitchell seeks to expose him to longer and more intense levels of Super Rugby.
Should he seem to be making the grade early on, I’m sure Mitchell will allow Stephan his chance to start a game or two, after all, the Kiwi mentor has shown with youngsters like Jaco Taute and Elton Jantjies that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
Name: Michael Rhodes
Physical: 1.96m; 114kg
Born: 19.12.87, Durban
Province: Golden Lions
Provincial Caps: 50 (Career)
Provincial Points: 40 (8t)
Provincial Debut: 2009 v Lions (Sharks)
Super Rugby Caps: 11 (Career)
Super Rugby Points: 10 (2t)
Super Rugby Debut: 2011 (Cheetahs)
Interestingly, despite Rhodes being contracted initially as a loose forward, he is listed on the Lions website as a Flank / Lock, and indeed has been used as cover off the bench as a lock on a number of previous occasions.
A young and talented footballer, Rhodes has a fiery character and has been on the wrong side of the referrees “hand in pocket” more times than his coach would like. It’s an aspect of his game that I’m sure John Mitchell wold like to curb, because when on song and concentrating purely on his football, Rhodes is, in my opinion a sight to behold, and a truly inspiring sight.
In many ways Rhodes reminds me of Rob Louw in his prime, a true tearaway flanker who makes yards every time he touches the ball, and similarly, mows his opposition down in the tackle at every opportunity.
I’m sure we’ll see Michael coming off the bench at regular intervals, whether as a replacement for the hard working loose forwards or to add some extra grunt up front as the starting locks tire.
Either way, we can expect to see action when he’s on the field. Let’s just hope it’s not in the WWE mould around a Kiwi neck.
Given that the first choice locks from the last campaign are both retreaded loose forwards, it may well be that John Mitchell will start off the Super Rugby campaign for 2012 by utilising a dynamic and fast paced game plan where the likes of vd Merve and van Heerden act almost like 4th and 5th loose forwards getting to the rucks and mauls as quickly as possible and ensuring quick recycled ball.
Later in the game I expect that he will unleash the youngsters and try to keep the pace of the game as fast as possible.
We can rest assured that the Lions squad will be super fit, and this will surely assist a game plan as outlined ablove.
One area of concern though is that none of the Lions locks are really “huge” in the lock forward sense of the word, and when coupled with the inexperience (at Super Rugby level) that the Lions have at hooker, it may well prove to be somewhat detrimental against line outs such as the Stromers and Bulls who I expect will (as always) be extremely competent in this department.