Overlooked Lions eyeing Bok spots


These men will be hoping to get a look-in from the new national coach and among them will be several Lions players.

Many felt too few in-form players were taken to last year’s World Cup in England with a good number of Lions men among them.

Two players who’re hoping for a solid showing in the new-look and expanded Super Rugby competition over the coming months are centres Howard Mnisi and Lionel Mapoe.

Both men enjoyed stellar seasons in 2015, but were ultimately overlooked by Meyer when it came to crunch-time; the former boss understandably going with players he’d already put his faith in – Jean de Villiers, Damian de Allende and rookie Jesse Kriel.

But with a new “World Cup cycle” starting in the coming weeks, Mnisi and Mapoe – the “Super Ms” of the Lions midfield – have an opportunity to fulfil their dream of donning the green and gold of the Boks.

“Our focus is to do well in the new format of Super Rugby,” said Mapoe last week.

“Regarding the Boks, it’s a matter of, if you do well you’ll get rewarded. Of course, my dream is to play for the Boks, to play more than one game.

“I know and understand what I must do in Super Rugby first, to maybe get there so the priority is to contribute to the Lions team.”

Mnisi feels the same.

“We all have ambitions, but it’s important not to get ahead of oneself; those are uncontrollable factors.

“All I want to do is improve on last year, try and be a better player. If I get the nod from upstairs then good, but it’s important to first make the Lions a better team.”

Both are key men in coach Johan Ackermann’s plans but both men also know that getting into the Lions starting team will be the aim.

The Lions have developed into a good squad in the last two years with quality depth across the team and the fight for the two midfield positions will be fiercely contested, as will the battle in most other positions, too.

Besides Mnisi and Mapoe, Ackermann will consider rising star Harold Vorster, who was so impressive last year before injury cut short his year, while there’s also Stokkies Hanekom in the mix.

“I know I’m going to have to work harder this year because it’s going to be a challenge to make the team,” said Mapoe. “We’ve got a great group of players here and the competition is really good. In the end it’s up to the individual to prove himself and then the coach has to make the call according to the game he wants to play.

“I’m happy to move to the wing, if it comes to that and if it’s good for them … I played there a lot in my younger days, but I really want to put a marker down (at centre).

“I’m hoping to put my hand up and say I’m the best man for the job.”

Mnisi, as a specialist inside centre, will be up against Vorster and he also knows that securing a spot won’t be easy.

“There’s a lot of competition, but it should be good. It will push everyone to perform to the best of their ability. Even now, in pre-season the guys will be wanting to put up their hands.

“But it’s going to be important to build relationships with every player because the coach could go with any combination, so whoever is picked will need to link up well with the player next to him.”

This rotation policy has worked well for Ackermann and his team. There is no defined and clear first choice XV and this attitude, says Mnisi, keeps every squad member interested and involved, knowing they can get a call-up at any stage. “I believe it improves my game. You know that at every session, whether it’s in the gym or on the training ground, you have to bring your A-game otherwise the next guy will take the opportunity.

“It keeps guys on their toes and that’s not only for the centres, but every position. We’ve got some great depth in this squad.”

After a strong showing last year, expectations are high that the Lions could be contenders for the play-offs this season, but the players are not looking too far ahead.

“All we’re after is to make sure we’re better off than before. In the end our performances will dictate what the fans feel and expect of us.”

What is certain, though, is the Lions will again look to play exciting, open rugby.

“Brotherhood is what this team is all about. Our backline has always been exciting, it’s the brand we want to play, it’s exciting for us and the fans.

The Lions play three warm-up games in the coming weeks before kicking off their Super Rugby challenge against the new Japanese team, the Sunwolves, in Tokyo on February 27.

Original source: Overlooked Lions eyeing Bok spots