When John Mitchell guided the Lions to their first Currie Cup victory in 12 years last season, many felt that the franchise would step up and make a definitive impact on this Super Rugby campaign.
Not only was it their first title since 1999, but it was the Lions first home success in a deciding match of a Currie Cup since 1950, and when the Super Rugby equivalent won their opening match of the 2012 Super Rugby season against the Cheetahs – there continued to be hope that the Lions would turnaround a series of difficult years.
Yet history had long proven that the gap between Currie Cup and Super Rugby was significant.
While the Natal Sharks in 1996, Currie Cup champions, became the first South African team to qualify for the top four, there was a feeling that provincial success would translate – as at the time the Republic’s Super Rugby participants were determined by the top four teams in that season’s Currie Cup.
The Bulls, winners in 1998, made little impact in Super Rugby that season winning just three games, while only in 2009 did they finally achieve a championship double, winning the South African title that season as they claimed their second Super Rugby trophy.
The Free State Cheetahs, who won three straight Currie Cups from 2005 to 2007, were not able to carry over this dominance to the Super Rugby stage when they were admitted to the expanded Super 14 in 2006.
For Mitchell and the Lions coaching team of Carlos Spencer and Johan Ackermann, the spectre of injuries raised their head early in the season, and while this is part and parcel of the game, the Lions did not have Lady Luck smile on them early.
By the time they prepared for their second match of the 2012 Super Rugby season, nine of the Currie Cup winning players had been ruled out via injury.
The following five weeks, despite a bye in week four, didn’t empty the casualty ward.
Indeed, it became stacked, with Mitchell describing the toll as the worst he had seen in his professional coaching career, with 14 members of the squad out of action by the beginning of month two.
However a two-point loss to the Hurricanes (week two) and a five-point reverse to a powerful Stormers side (week five) was followed by a competitive showing against the Crusaders, leading at halftime before losing 23-13.
The Cheetahs the next week then took revenge with a comprehensive win at home, which started a run of six straight losses without yielding a single competition point for the fading Lions.
By the time they arrived in Perth, for the fourth match of their overseas tour, they were on a ten-match losing streak, and could have been forgiven for waving the white flag with a quarter of the season still to play.
While they lost against the Force, they did earn their first competition point in two months, losing 17-11 in a game which they could have won, with the visitor’s defensive efforts hinting at a proud attitude from the Lions.
Purists argued that some of the Lions woes came from their coaching patterns.
It was energy and expansive play that earned them the Currie Cup, and there were few indications throughout the season that this approach had been changed despite the loss of personal.
Mitchell argued that it was execution, not tactics, that was letting the team down, as they returned home to Johannesburg to host a Sharks team that was in many respects the ‘hottest’ team as the season prepared for its month break – with John Plumtree and his men putting together four straight wins to put them into Super Rugby Final’s Series contention.
What followed was a remarkable 38-28 victory, where not only did the Lions earn their first four-try bonus point (a delayed vindication of the Lions persistence in playing a wide game), but played their part in a match that ranked up with the Rebels defeat of the Crusaders as the biggest upset of the season.
The Lions play the Stormers and Bulls away, while hosting the Rebels, and will look to build on their heroic win over the Sharks to put some distance between themselves and the bottom of the table.
For off the field, the team is still unsure of their future with the South African Rugby Union’s decision to confirm the Kings into Super Rugby from 2013.