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Envy the Lions, don’t pity them

So the worst part of the rugby season is now behind the Super Rugby participants. Well almost, for the Sharks still have one more warm-up fixture to go in Nelspruit this coming weekend.

The coaches will surely agree the preparation games are the least enjoyable for there is so little to gain and so much more to lose. A great win in a pre-season game is tempered by the knowledge that it means nothing to the log and that you may have shown your hand to future opponents, with the potential positive being far outweighed by the negative that can be wrought by an injury to a key player.

That is not to say that warm-up games don’t have their place. Of course they do. You can’t go into a new Super Rugby season with no proper rugby under the belt. It’s just that for the coaches it’s a necessary evil rather than something that they look forward to with great relish. When the final whistle blows, they heave a sigh of relief that all the players are still intact and that their planning for the competition remains on course.

Sharks coach John Plumtree and his Stormers counterpart Allister Coetzee don’t have that luxury after this past weekend. The Stormers could certainly have done without the injury sustained by Eben Etzebeth against the Boland Cavaliers that has ruled him out for six to eight weeks.

And the Sharks have lost their highly regarded captain and talisman Keegan Daniel for a month with a ligament injury and Tim Whitehead broke his arm against the Leopards.

So what has everyone got out of the pre-season games played so far? Not a lot, although the players in the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers teams would have had their confidence boosted by their easy passage through last week’s matches. The Bulls were the most impressive of the so-called big three of the local teams, and they were also the only side to come through unscathed.

We don’t really know how strong, or weak, the Cheetahs team they beat in Polokwane is, but you do get the sense, even at this early stage of the year, that something positive is happening in Pretoria. For me, as I wrote in my last column, the loss of coaches to the Springboks has been made up for by the recruitment of Victor Matfield as an assistant as well as the arrival of some talented juniors who could already be good enough to make a strong impact in Super Rugby.

The Southern Kings have done nothing in the pre-season to sweep away the general negative perception of their chances of keeping head above water. They didn’t field a full-strength team against the Lions, but then the Lions team that beat them in Johannesburg this past weekend is missing good players who are away on loan to other franchises.

My money says the Kings are going to find it hard to adapt to the pace and tempo of Super Rugby in the early weeks. By the time they do, they will have been impacted by injuries. It would be a brave person who predicts that the promotion-relegation playoffs will feature anything other than the Kings playing the Lions.

The Lions have seen more action than any team in the early season and coach Johan Ackermann shouldn’t be despondent about what he has seen so far. There is young talent coming through, and while we should not read too much into their recent win against the Cheetahs, the most positive aspect for them is that they now have time to build without the pressure of having to win at all costs every weekend.

Indeed, the Lions may be the franchise to be envied as the 2013 Super Rugby train clatters up the track towards us. That may sound Irish considering they aren’t playing Super Rugby, but think about it – the coaches have a rare opportunity to experiment with game-plans and players without the massive pressure that comes with having to win every week.

In fact, if I was part of the Lions management I might argue for some of the young players to be given a couple of months off from playing so that they can be put through the conditioning programme that is so necessary but which the long fixture list leaves so little time for. If Ackermann and his fellow coaches have the foresight to send a few players into the gym rather than onto the field, they may well reap the rewards later.

The last time a top province missed out on Super Rugby was Western Province in 1997. It enabled their coach Harry Viljoen to experiment, try new players and grow his team’s game in the less frenetic atmosphere of what was known as the Bankfin Night Series. Later that year it paid off with a Currie Cup title.

The Lions have a rare opportunity to build without the pressure that usually accompanies top level rugby. They should not waste it.

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