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Fatigue is Lions’ biggest obstacle

They fell tantalisingly short last year and the smart money should be on the Emirates Lions again emerging as South Africa’s best team in Vodacom Super Rugby in 2017.

They did lose the final to the Hurricanes, but that was after they’d condemned themselves to travel to Wellington for the decider, which was always going to be a bridge too far. There is a reason why no South African team has travelled to New Zealand to win a semifinal or final, and the message to all local teams with title aspirations this year should be a simple one – top the overall log, or forget it.

However, if you factor out the debilitating odds they faced in the final, the Lions did end the season with impressive momentum as they blew away the Crusaders and Highlanders on their home ground en route to the final. Those wins should have imbued the Lions with great confidence and, considering they did beat the Chiefs in Hamilton early in 2016, there aren’t too many barriers left for them to go through and conquer.

They know how to win in New Zealand, they know how to beat them in New Zealand. They just need to avoid having to go there for a play-off game. Which is the only time they will go to New Zealand, if they do have to, because their away matches against Australasian opposition this year are all in Australia.

That should mean they have an easier fixture list now than they did when they started out 12 months ago, and to top that, the Lions have retained most of their personnel from 2016, and even added depth in some areas. The Lions’ under-21 side was impressive last year and clearly the Johannesburg union is getting the recruitment right.

But having said all that, and acknowledging the Lions as favourites, it also needs to be recognised that it will be a different ball game in many other ways for the Lions this time around. For a start, having made the final last August, they are now much more of a known entity. Like a batsman going into his second season, that means opponents have had time to suss out your potential weaknesses in addition to recognising your strengths.

And the Lions have lost something crucial in one of their key areas of strength. A terrible neck injury in the second half of last season has robbed them of the powerful scrum anchor, Julian Redelinghuys. The importance of a strong scrum platform to the attacking game the Lions play cannot be underestimated.

When the Lions lost Redelinghuys and then a few other of the back-up tightheads before the league game against the Hurricanes in Johannesburg last April, it was regarded as ominous by some commentators, and the misgivings were proved correct. The Hurricanes scored 50.

Ruan Dreyer is a strong tighthead and as long as he stays fit the Lions shouldn’t lack too much. But if there are injuries, they could find themselves with concerns. And they have already started off this season with more injuries than was the case last year.

They also don’t have the momentum that they had this time in 2016, when they were fresh off a Currie Cup win that was achieved pretty much with the squad that started Super Rugby. That is not the case now as Springbok call-ups and players playing overseas robbed the Lions of their previous continuity and they were well beaten by the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup final.

The transition from one competition to the other this year won’t be nearly as seamless, and there were many Lions fans who asked a very interesting question when the Springboks were struggling through their horrendous 2016 campaign – “How will it impact on the confidence of individuals in the Lions team?” I think that coach Johan Ackermann would be the first to admit that confidence was a huge factor in last year’s successes. You need to be confident to play the way the Lions do.

Certainly there were some players, the halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies being a prime example, who ended the 2016 season far less rated by the wider public than they were when they first moved from Super Rugby to the international level. What will be key for them is how they perceive themselves, and it will be incumbent on them to prove that Ackermann can get from them something that Allister Coetzee can’t.

All of these factors though are relatively minor in comparison to what I consider to be the Lions’ biggest obstacle. It takes just one or two good wins to bring back confidence, the loss of Redelinghuys can be overcome. What could be a lost more difficult for them to overcome is the debilitating effect of fatigue.

For the first time the Lions are starting out the season with players who not only faced a hectic 2016 schedule because they were called up to international duty, they also have a core of players who spent the off-season overseas.

Yes, Japanese club rugby may not be as intense as Super Rugby, and the players don’t play as often, but we saw last year how players who’d spent the summer in Japan struggled. The Lions base a lot on their fitness and energy, and come the period after the June break for the internationals, I have sneaky suspicion that some of the players, and hence the team, might find themselves paying a price for too much non-stop rugby.

It would be a pity if that proved the case, for the Lions definitely looked capable of ending the New Zealand hegemony and growing into a champion team at the end of their 2016 campaign.

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