Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Clumsy and imprecise at times in their maiden
experience of Tokyo, the Lions nevertheless got what they critically wanted
ahead of the New Zealand leg of their early-season Super Rugby travels.
Importance of outcome probably eclipsed quality of
performance in the minds of Warren Whiteley and company as they banked a
full-house of log points against the debutant Sunwolves on Saturday, courtesy
of four tries to one and a 26-13 triumph.
They’re unlikely to admit it, but the Johannesburg-based
franchise probably quietly set themselves a minimum target of one win from
three abroad, and of the trio of assignments the Japanese side always looked
the easiest prey in advance.
That is because the Lions have now proceeded onward to the
Land of the Long White Cloud and fairly unenviable respective meetings with the
Chiefs (Saturday, 06:15 SA time) and then defending champions the Highlanders.
It will be educative to all SA teams to see how the Lions
fare on what have become shorter Australasian visits under the new tournament
format. Whereas last year and in 2014, since their return to the competition,
the Highveld outfit had to tackle four matches there (two NZ, two Australia),
this time they come straight home after the NZ leg.
It is not suddenly going to be a cakewalk, especially
because by shifting from Japan to New Zealand the Lions have had to negotiate
two significant switches in time zones – first they had to deal with a
seven-hour difference between Johannesburg and Tokyo, and then a further four
hours between Tokyo and Hamilton.
But at least the likelihood of homesickness should have
lessened, and the squad will additionally be heartened by the thought that once
the Chiefs and Highlanders hurdles are out of the way, they come home to an
almost unprecedented sequence of 11 matches on South African soil, eight of
them at Emirates Airline Park.
Under those circumstances, it will not be a train smash if
the Lions play second fiddle in both Hamilton and Dunedin, particularly if they
can bank a losing bonus point or two.
There is, however, another way of looking at it: just
imagine how tidily placed the Lions would suddenly look if they could pull off
a “smash and grab” win in either of the fixtures?
Such a scenario is not completely out of the question, when
you consider that Johan Ackermann’s charges did earn a one-from-two record in
New Zealand last season – they edged the Blues 13-10 in Albany although the
Crusaders whipped them 34-6 in Christchurch.
As if to confirm that they are no longer lightweights on
foreign soil, the Lions also won both fixtures in Australia, against the Rebels
and Reds; those three wins out of four overseas played an influential role in
driving them to second-placed finish in the 2015 SA conference and so very
nearly into the playoffs.
The Lions last played the Chiefs in 2014, when they were
rather battered 38-8 in Hamilton, but last season they beat the Highlanders
28-23 in the Big Smoke – from 20-3 down at one stage – and were only squeezed
out 23-22 in the last away meeting with them in 2014.
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