Cape Town – The Lions came ever-so-close to upsetting the Stormers and clinching the South African conference in Super Rugby 2015.
It was not to be, but coach Johan Ackermann then guided the Golden Lions to Currie Cup glory after winning 12 straight matches in the competition.
Ackermann is rated as one of the most promising young coaches in the country when it comes to playing dynamic, attacking rugby.
The fact that he is one of just two coaches – the other being the Sharks’ Gary Gold – to stay with the side he coached last year gives the Lions a sense of consistency going into 2016.
They are in a tough group alongside the Sharks and Jaguares (and Kings) and they will also be playing all five New Zealand franchises, but even so there remains a sense that this could be the year that the Lions impress.
Coach: Johan Ackermann
Captain: Warren Whiteley
Last season: 2nd in SA conference, 8th overall
Grouped with: Sharks, Kings, Jaguares
Potential strengths: That the Lions are a settled unit under a settled coach is surely their biggest plus. While teams like the Stormers and Bulls are looking to integrate a new philosophy into their franchises this year, the Lions under Ackermann are a step ahead and have been working at playing an expansive brand of rugby for well over a year now.
Potential weaknesses: Star power … do the lions have enough of it to be taken as serious contenders this year? There are quality players throughout the squad, of that there is no doubt, but is there enough depth to be consistently competitive throughout the season? The Lions face the Jaguares home and away as well as all five New Zealand franchises … a tough ask.
Players to watch: With injuries to Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie, the Springbok door has re-opened for Elton Jantjies. The Lions pivot was exceptional in Super Rugby last season and was very unlucky to have been left out of Heyneke Meyer’s World Cup squad. If Jantjies can replicate the form he showed last season, then not only will he become a major contender for the Bok No 10 jersey, but it will bode well for the Lions too. Among the forwards, big things are expected of Currie Cup captain Jaco Kriel, who will also want to throw himself into the Springbok mix. Warren Whiteley will also look to build on his impressive form of 2015.
Realistic aim: It is a tough ask, but the Lions will want nothing less than a playoff spot.
Players in: JW Bell (Pumas)
Players out: Alwyn Hollenbach (retired), Lohan Jacobs (released), Mark Pretorius (released), Mark Richards (Kings), Schalk van der Merwe (Montpellier)
First fixture: February 27, Sunwolves (a)