Popular Lions will be 'underdone' for season-opener
SUPER RUGBY PRE-SEASON: Not only does he have to deal with constant raids on his player resources, but Lions coach Swys de Bruin needs to carefully manage his charges in 2018.
De Bruin, speaking to rugby365 as the two-time finalists stepped up their pre-season preparations, admitted his side will go into the opening round "underdone".
The Lions host the Sharks in Johannesburg on February 17 - the opening weekend of the competition, which features only South African teams.
De Bruin said his players have become the target of other teams because of the success of the side the last few years - having reached the Final in 2016 and 2017.
They have already lost a few players to European outfits, but the "interest" in his charges have not slowed down.
De Bruin suggested the 2018 season will be much tougher for the Ellis Park-based franchise, for several reason.
"We will remain process driven and focus on the job at hand," he said, when asked how they will cope with all the new challenges.
"The tours are tougher, as we will be travelling for four weeks at a time, and we will finish off in New Zealand.
"Also, there are no longer teams - like the Kings and Force - where you could bank on wins.
"No doubt, the competition will be much tougher - it will be a much bigger challenge, as it will be strength-versus-strength.
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De Bruin said there are many "rumours" of Lions players being targeted by other franchises - both local and abroad.
"We also have more Springbok in the squad and other players that are getting offers from everywhere - teams like Western Province, and elsewhere, are certainly looking at our players," he told rugby365.
"You hear all the time this team wants that player.
"I don't want to name specific players, but there is no doubt our players are much more popular than in the past."
The Lions coach was cautious when asked about the favourable draw - which sees them play six of their first eight matches at home and the two away matches are in Pretoria and Buenos Aires. They then have a bye, before going on a four-week Australasian tour.
"We saw last year with the Stormers, who got off to a very good start and struggled in the second half of the season,""he said.
"Super Rugby is a very long campaign.
"You don't want a good star and then fall out the bus.
"You have to be as consistent as possible throughout the competition."
He also explained why his team is deliberately cutting down on pre-season matches.
The Lions play the Bulls, or one version of the Bulls, in Johannesburg on Saturday, January 27 - their only pre-season outing.
Apart from playing the Lions in Johannesburg, the Bulls also play the Sharks in Polokwane on the same day.
It is not sure in Bulls coach John Mitchell is going to play two teams of equal strength on the day or send his A-team to one of the games and a second-string selection to the other match.
The Lions will also play a practice match against the University of Johannesburg - where the coaches will be on the field during the 'match' and then have an internal practice match.
"It is a long competition," DE Bruin told rugby365.
"I would much rather go in underdone, than playing too many friendlies.
"If it was a new team, I would have done things differently, but we [mostly] have the same group [as the last two years].
"Also, a number of our players have been in Japan and abroad. They must also have a break."
He said those returning from abroad will get a break before joining the team.
"Our trainer will have to manage their workload very carefully.
"We will make those calls on an individual basis."
Jan de Koning