Lions still have a Super plan
Jan de Koning chats, exclusively, to Lions captain JC Janse van Rensburg about their build-up to their Super Rugby promotion-relegation match.
The Lions' build-up to their Super Rugby promotion-relegation match in August has been dealt a few setbacks, but not yet a crippling blow.
Following the cancellation of their North American tour and this week's news that relegated French club Agen are not coming to South Africa - in the wake of last week's player strike over outstanding payments - it has been suggested that the Lions will be undercooked when they face the bottom-placed South African team in about three months.
For now the team is using the second-tier Vodacom Cup competition to keep the players - those not on loan to other Super Rugby franchises - active and will field their best available selection in the semifinal against a high-flying Western Province team at Ellis Park this coming Saturday.
This past weekend the 'best available' Lions team comfortably beat a Sharks XV 42-25 in a quarterfinal outing in Durban and a fortnight before that a similar selection ended the previously unbeaten Pumas' run with a 23-14 triumph in Nelspruit.
However, it is their encounter with the powerful Samoan national team next month that will really kick-start the team's preparations in their drive to regain Super Rugby status.
Regular Lions captain JC Janse van Rensburg, on loan to the touring Sharks team in Australasia, admitted that these Vodacom Cup games are needed to keep the team in shape.
However, the match against Samoa on June 1 and planned outings against other French clubs are now vital in the team's preparations for the promotion-relegation encounter.
"We do need game time," Van Rensburg told this website in an exclusive interview.
"There are outstanding players in the group," he said of those not on loan to other SA franchises, adding: "Any player, when he doesn't play often enough, gets a bit rusty.
"Against the Pumas [in Nelspruit last month] you could see an improvement and I was very impressed with the forwards, especially our scrums."
The Lions continued that improvement when they comfortably beat a powerful Sharks selection, which included Springboks Marius Joubert, Ryan Kankowski and Willem Alberts.
If the Lions beat WP this week they will also have a Vodacom Cup final to help shape the 'stay-at-home' players, but the real build-up will start next month.
"Our first decent game is against Samoa [on June 1]," Van Rensburg told this website.
"That is when the real rugby starts.
"Once Samoa has been here, then follow some other top French clubs, as well as games against the Stormers and Sharks.
"That is when we face really top flight teams in the final build-up to the promotion-relegation games."
The game against Samoa is shaping up as crucial to the Lions' campaign, as the South Pacific islanders named a largely Northern Hemisphere-based squad for next month's tour to South Africa - which also include Tests against Scotland, Italy and a possible 'final' against the Springboks in a four-nation tournament.
Seventeen of the 31-strong squad come from French, British and Spanish clubs, with the rest hailing from, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Samoa.
Six new caps have been included, including Hurricanes duo Jack Lam and Alapati Leiua, along with Waratahs scrumhalf Auvasa Faleali'i.
Head coach Stephen Betham told Radio New Zealand they've tried to pick a team with a mix of youth and experience, but said unavailability has also played a part in the final make-up.
"We've had a lot of that issue," Betham said.
"Like I said we can't really fool around with the boys contracts so, if they're not available, basically it opens the door for someone else and hopefully they take the opportunity.
"At the end of the day that's their bread and butter and we don't want to impose on that, we just have to make the best of what we have. We're just trying to widen our base so, come 2014, we have a broad base where we can have a good selection base from."
Forwards: Census Johnston (Toulouse), Logovi'i Mulipola (Leicester Tigers), Sakaria Taulafo (London Wasp), James Johnston (Harlequins), Ti'i Paulo (Clermont), Wayne Ole Avei (Bordeaux Beagles), Manu Leiataua (North Harbour), Kane Thompson (Canon Eagles), Iosefa Tekori (Castres), Daniel Leo (Perpignan), Teofilo Paulo (Cardiff Blues), Taiasina Tuifua (Newcastle Falcons), Alafoti Faosiliva (Bristol), Ofisa Treviranus (London Irish), Jack Lam (Hurricanes), Maurie Fa'asavalu (Harlequins), Fa'alemiga Selesele (Moata'a, Samoa).
Backs: Kahn Fotuali'i (Ospreys), Jeremy Su'a (Crusaders), Auvasa Faleali'i (Newcastle, Australia), Tusi Pisi (Hurricanes/Suntory Sungoliath), Ki Anufe (Auckland), George Pisi (Northampton Saints), Johnny Leota (Sale Sharks), Isaia Tuifua (Vigo, Spain), Brandon Va'aulu (Tokyo), Alesana Tuilagi (NTT Shining Arcs), Alapati Leiua (Hurricanes), Robert Lilomaiava (Vaiala, Samoa), Paul Williams (Stade Francais), James So'oialo (Wellington).
The Lions' remaining matches:
Saturday, June 1: v Samoa, Ellis Park - 15.00 (13.00 GMT)
Saturday, June 8: v SA Barbarians, Ellis Park - 14.00 (12.00 GMT)
Saturday, June 15: v Stormers, Ellis Park - 14.00 (12.00 GMT)
Friday, June 21: v Sharks, Ellis Park - 19.00 (17.00 GMT)
Friday, July 12: v Montpellier, Ellis Park - 19.00 (17.00 GMT)
Saturday, July 20: v Grenoble, Ellis Park - 14.30 (12.30 GMT)
Saturday, August 3: TBC Promotion/Relegation, Ellis Park - TBC
* The French matches ar still subject to change!
By Jan de Koning, with additional reporting from Radio NZ