Lions opt for young guns ahead of new season, Newsline

Proofing their youngsters will be the name of the game for the next few weeks as the Lions prepare for a season full of new challenges and rivals.

With the Rainbow Cup in mind, the Lions opted on Tuesday to select a team full of young guns, with a sprinkling of older players who participated on the fringes in the recently concluded Currie Cup, to take on the Pumas (Friday, kick-off 7pm) at Emirates Airline Park in the first of a scheduled 16 preparation matches.

It will, therefore, be a welcome opportunity for both cliques of players to exhibit their potential by making known their intentions and to be considered for selection from within the core squad later this year when the European-orientated Rainbow Cup starts in April.

That mindset will apply to the technical team as well as coach Ivan van Rooyen is set to take on a role of grand overseer in the coming weeks, with Under-21 Lions coach Mziwakhe Nkosi steering the team during the next batch of matches to further his development. As such, and for the time being, the senior squad members will continue their preparations in the background, with a roadmap to introduce them later during these handful of matches.

“It is a great opportunity for us to get some game time for the guys who haven’t played quite a bit during Super Rugby and the Currie Cup,” said Van Rooyen on Tuesday. “It is a great opportunity to have a look at some junior players.

“The majority of seniors started this week on Monday with their sessions, so it is just too early to put them into it, so it is an opportunity for us in these next four games to get some game time, and for everyone to get as ready for the year.”

“It is important for us to put the (senior players) through a mini pre-season. Due to last year – Covid and all the competitions we had,” Van Rooyen continued, “for us to be ready for the next year, year-and-a half, of jam-packed rugby. It is very important for us to give (the senior players) three or four weeks, for a lack of a better word, a pre-season with rugby-specific conditioning. So, the first two games are probably too soon for that, so we will be looking at getting through those.”

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Lock Reinhard Nothnagel will captain the team on Friday. The selection will also reintroduce fullback EW Viljoen and Dillon Smit. Viljoen had little game time in the Currie Cup owing to injury, and the preference of Tiaan Swanepoel, who will play this weekend at flyhalf. Smit makes a welcome return after a long injury lay-off and if he remains fit in the coming week, could once again be the preferred scrumhalf come April. Elsewhere, Divan Russouw will make an appearance at wing after being omitted from the squad during the last season.

In other developments at the union, Swanepoel, lock Nothnagel and prop Sti Sithole have all extended their contracts with the Lions Rugby Company. Swanepoel (24) and Nothnagel (23) have signed on with the union for a further three years, while 27-year-old Sithole will remain with the union until at least the end of 2022.

“These three stalwarts have excelled in confidence in senior rugby and have grown in their respective positions,” the statement released on Tuesday by the union read. “We know that they will take their game to the next level in 2021.”

The Lions will tackle this season without the expertise of Springbok lock Marvin Orie, who earlier this year declined to re-sign with the union and has subsequently joined the Western Province. Sadly, as explained by Van Rooyen, utility-back Gianni Lombard will not return to the fold until at least October. Van Rooyen did reveal, however, that Lombard’s recuperation from his knee injury was on track and was showing positive signs.

Lions starting XV: EW Viljoen; Prince Nkabinde, Manuel Rass, James Mollentze, Divan Rossouw; Tiaan Swanepoel, Morné van den Berg; Francke Horn, Roelof Smit, Marnus Schoeman, Reinhard Nothnagel (captain), Emmanuel Tshituka, Wiehahn Herbst, PJ Botha, Nathan McBeth; Replacements: Dameon Venter, Banele Mthenjane, Jannie du Plessis, Ruhan Straeuli, MJ Pelser, Dillon Smit, Luke Rossouw, Ngia Selengbe, Ruan Dreyer, Izan Esterhuizen, Sibusiso Sangweni