Lions in state of uncertainty
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2018 - TEAM BY TEAM: In the first instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the Lions. It will be followed by the rest of the teams in the South African conference - then the other conferences.
There is an air of uncertainty surrounding a Lions team that reached the Final the last two years.
It is the change in the coaching ranks that has brought that uncertainty.
Yes, there are a number of key players who also departed - most notably Ruan Ackermann (to Gloucester), Francois de Klerk (Sale), Armand van der Merwe (Sharks) and Julian Redelinghuys (retired).
However, the departure of Johan Ackermann (now the Gloucester coach) and JP Ferreira (Munster) has the cynics suggesting the Lions' dominance of the South African Super Rugby scene is over.
The Lions are on a 17-match winning streak against SA franchises - their last defeat a 33-35 loss to the Bulls in May 2015.
Zacharia Francois de Bruin will finally step out of the shadow of Ackermann, after having been his trusted sidekick since 2013.
The man, affectionately known as Swys, readily admits repeating the feats of 2016 and 2017 will be a tall order.
"No doubt, the competition will be much tougher - it will be a much bigger challenge, as it will be strength-versus-strength," De Bruin said.
De Bruin's coaching pedigree should leave no doubt that he can do the job, despite the scepticism of the many naysayers.
There will be challenges, but with the bulk of the squad from the last two years in place, there is no reason why they should not be in the running for top spot in the conference - or at least reach the play-offs.
The key areas for the Lions, where they are a bit thin in terms of resources, are scrumhalf and flyhalf.
De Klerk's departure could thrust young Marco Jansen van Vuren into the spotlight - as back-up to Springbok Ross Cronje and Dillon Smit.
The back-up to Springbok Elton Jantjies at flyhalf will be Andries Coetzee and Shaun Reynolds, but there is also the talented young Ashlon Davids.
Talent there is aplenty. Experience at Super Rugby level, not so much.
Tighthead prop could also be an issue for the Lions, who pride themselves on their powerful scrumming.
For the rest, they have enough stock to cope with the rigours of Super Rugby.
South African Conference Placing: First
Player of the Year: Malcolm Marx
Rookie of the Year: Hacjivah Dayimani
Super Rugby Placing: Second
In: Christiaan Meyer (Griquas), Khwezi Mona (Pumas).
Out: Ruan Ackermann (Gloucester), Fabian Booysen (released), Francois de Klerk (Sale), Jacques Nel (Kings), Armand van der Merwe (Sharks), Jaco van der Walt (Edinburgh), Hencus van Wyk (Munakata Sanix Blues), Julian Redelinghuys (retired), Anthony Volmink (Kings).
Squad (provisional): Justin Ackerman, Ruan Dreyer, Corné Fourie, Johannes Jonker, Sti Sithole, Dylan Smith, Jacques van Rooyen, Robbie Coetzee, Malcolm Marx, Lourens Erasmus, Andries Ferreira, Robert Kruger, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Cyle Brink, Hacjivah Dayimani, Jaco Kriel, Albertus Smith, Warren Whiteley, Ross Cronjé, Dillon Smit, Andries Coetzee, Elton Jantjies, Shaun Reynolds, Christiaan Meyer, Khwezi Mona, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Lionel Mapoe, Howard Mnisi, Harold Vorster, Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan, Madosh Tambwe, Sylvian Mahuza', Marco Jansen van Vuren, .
Best finish: Champions in 1993 (Some purists dismiss their Super 10 title as being in the amateur era. They were runners-up in 2016 and 17)
Worst finish: Fifteenth in 2012
By Jan de Koning
* Don't miss the rest of the South African conference, as well as the New Zealand and Australian conferences in the coming weeks.