Lions to rely heavily on 'old hands'
Lions coach Johan Ackermann spoke, exclusively, to Jan de Koning about the changes to his squad ahead of the 2014 Super Rugby season.
The Lions will field a much younger and very inexperienced squad in 2014, compared to their last appearance in Super Rugby in 2012.
However, coach Johan Ackermann said he would lean heavily on a handful of his most senior players - the old hands left over from two years ago - when they start their campaign next month.
The Lions mark their return to Super Rugby by taking on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday, February 15.
But before that they have three pre-season games planned - against the Leopards at Ellis Park on January 24, the Southern/Eastern Province Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on February 1 and the Sharks at Ellis Park Stadium on February 7.
Ackermann said it is great to be back in Super Rugby.
"Last year this time we had no idea what was waiting for us and all we had [planned] was a bunch of friendlies," the Lions mentor told this website in an interview as his team stepped up their pre-season preparations.
"Now, a year later, we are back in the big time."
He added that the players were well aware of the enormity of the challenge ahead of them.
Ackermann, who will name his final squad on Thursday, January 30, admitted the Lions lost an enormous amount of experience.
"Back then  we came out of a Currie Cup win [in 2011] and there were high expectations," Ackermann told this website.
"We didn't live up to expectations in 2012 and it would be an understatement to say our Super Rugby season was a disappointment," he said of the season that saw then head coach John Mitchell was sacked midway through the competition.
Their subsequent axing from Super Rugby - in the boardroom - resulted in the departure of many senior players, with a few more leaving during the course of 2013.
"In the meantime a whole bunch of new players arrived, there were changes at the top end and at the bottom of the union," Ackermann said, adding: "It is difficult to know where this team stands, because we also had a very fractured year in 2013.
"You have to ask the question: 'Was those friendlies, the Currie Cup and those promotion-relegation games [against the Southern Kings] enough?'
"Only time will tell if the experience gained by those new players will be enough.
"We look at players like Marnitz Boshoff, Jacques van Rooyen, Warwick Tecklenburg, Robbie Coetzee - they haven't played Super Rugby yet, but they are all in line to make the [final] squad."
The coach said he would lean heavily on the guys who remained from 2012 - the likes of Springbok Franco van der Merwe, Derick Minnie, Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Michael Bondesio and Elton Jantjies.
"It is a fact that we are a very young and exciting group, but we also have an unknown group of players in terms of Super Rugby.
"That will be the big challenge, to see if we can rise to that level.
"We believe in our ability and we are working towards that goal, but there is no doubt the 2011/2012 team had far more experience - we had players like Jaco Taute, Wikus van Heerden, JC Janse van Rensburg, Joshua Strauss, Butch James, Waylon Murray, Bandise Maku, Pat Cilliers, Cobus Grobbelaar and Doppies la Grange in the squad still .
"We will lack a bit in terms of experience, but I am sure we will make up for it with enthusiasm, energy and players who are keen to play."
In December Warren Whiteley was named as captain, even though the squad has not been finalised.
"I still have a very large squad that I work with and I want one voice to speak to them," Ackermann told this website, adding: "They need to know, this guy is the captain - he must be the captain that gives direction from the outset.
"Warren [Whiteley] captained us when we won the Vodacom Cup [in 2013] and when we played [the Southern Kings] in the promotion-relegation games.
"He was injured after that, but I want to give him the opportunity.
"He has a lot of respect among the players and he is a good talker, because he is very comfortable in both Afrikaans and English - I feel he will be a good captain."
By Jan de Koning