One of the first thoughts that come up when the “Lions” and “Super Rugby 2018” are mentioned in the same sentence is: third time lucky?
It’s not an outrageous thought.
For the fourth year in a row, the franchise is in the remarkably privileged position of having essentially kept all their key players.
As a result, it raises hopes that maybe, just maybe the Lions can finally break their curse in the past two finals of the tournament.
But do the stars still have the focus and will now that their stocks have soared?
Here’s our verdict.
FULLBACKS: Andries Coetzee, Sylvian Mahuza
Andries Coetzee shouldn’t be too worried about the criticism he received at Springbok level last year.
The reliable 27-year-old might not quite possess the star quality at international level but he’s a very good performer at Super Rugby level and knows his game inside out at his franchise.
He might even have to help out at flyhalf.
Sylvian Mahuza’s cameos previously also suggests he could flourish with more game-time … and trust.
VERDICT: As long as Coetzee recovers his confidence, all will be fine
WINGERS: Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Madosh Tambwe
Like Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan should ignore the noises about his Bok career and focus on the fact that he’s a fine performer in the red and white.
Ruan Combrinck is one of the most gifted backs to emerge locally but it must be kept in mind that both are injured currently.
That leaves an inexperienced duo Aphiwe Dyantyi and Madosh Tambwe.
Dyanti’s rise has been particularly impressive after starring in the Currie Cup though it wouldn’t be a surprise if coach Swys de Bruin switches more experienced men like Lionel Mapoe or Rohan Janse van Rensburg to compensate for the knowledge gap.
VERDICT: Promise or plugging the gaps? Interesting choices await
CENTRES: Lionel Mapoe, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Harold Vorster, Howard Mnisi
Opposition could be forgiven for drooling over the players in this position.
Mapoe has been a stalwart for years, no midfielder in South Africa has Janse van Rensburg’s ability to randomly just punch a hole into the defence and Harold Vorster increasingly has the look of another Jan Serfontein about him.
If Howard Mnisi can finally build on an injury-stalled career, this group of men will single-handedly win games.
VERDICT: Oozing pace, power and skill
FLYHALVES: Elton Jantjies, Shaun Reynolds, Ashlon Davids
In some sides’ setup, flyhalf isn’t a be-all and end-all position.
But at the Lions they can’t pull off the all-action game-plan without a conductor.
Elton Jantjies does feel a bit man-alone in this position and if he can’t hit heights quickly, it will heap pressure on the inexperienced duo of Shaun Reynolds and Ashlon Davids.
VERDICT: Possibly wobbly
SCRUMHALVES: Ross Cronje, Marco Janse van Vuren, Dillon Smit, Christiaan Meyer
Of course there’ll be attention on Ross Cronje and whether he’ll recover his confidence after a chastening Springbok year.
But it might be young Marco Janse van Vuren who might have tongues wagging.
The 21-year-old halfback has everyone excited because he reminds so much of Joost van der Westhuizen.
In a scrumhalf drought, that could become a godsend.
“Muis” Meyer is on-loan from Griquas and has guts but where will the injury-ravaged Dillon Smit fit in?
VERDICT: Don’t be surprised if the apprentice takes over from the master
LOOSE FORWARDS: Warren Whiteley, Cyle Brink, Jaco Kriel, Kwagga Smith, Marnus Schoeman, Len Massyn, Hacjivah Dayimani, Willie Engelbrecht
A fit, refreshed Warren Whiteley could have a magical effect on a group of flankers that actually looks far more balanced than previous years.
Kwagga Smith and the on-loan Marnus Schoeman are nippy players who play to the ball, while Cyle Brink and Len Massyn – if he gains a few more kgs – could easily fill Ruan Ackermann’s void.
Hacjivah Dayimani is promising talent and Willie Engelbrecht, signed from the Pumas, screams Lions bargain buy.
He’s a man mountain.
VERDICT: Talented, classy and versatile. De Bruin could later easily rotate
LOCKS: Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Andries Ferreira, Rhyno Herbst, Robert Kruger, Lourens Erasmus
The effective duo of Franco Mostert and Andries Ferreira are still present but there’s a feeling that the time might be ripe to explore depth.
Former Junior Bok skipper Marvin Orie had an excellent Currie Cup and a lot has been invested in Lourens Erasmus.
VERDICT: Time to trust some of the deputies
HOOKERS: Malcolm Marx, Robbie Coetzee
An on-song Malcolm Marx, as everyone knows by now, is one of the biggest weapons in world rugby.
But the rest of the depth is actually rather manufactured.
Robbie Coetzee is a very useful backup but below him De Bruin has re-treated Corne Fourie (prop) and Schoeman (flank) in the No 2 jersey.
VERDICT: If injuries strike, the Lions could be hampered by lack of specialist skill
PROPS: Jacques van Rooyen, Sti Sithole, Jacobie Adriaanse, Ruan Dreyer, Johannes Jonker, Dylan Smith, Corne Fourie
There’s a retro feel to this group.
The premium on men like Jacques van Rooyen, Johannes Jonker, Jacobie Adriaanse and Ruan Dreyer seems to be scrumming ability.
And that tends to be forgotten.
To run the ball, you need solid set-pieces.
Surely the Lions will have that.
VERDICT: Scrum power galore but the youngsters will need to provide fresh legs later