Lions looking to 'express themselves'
There is a saying that it is tough getting to the top, but twice as tough staying there.
This will ring true for the defending Currie Cup champions, the Lions, when they start their campaign against the Cheetahs in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Not only will they have all the other teams trying to knock them off their perch, but the revised format of the competition means there is now simply no margin for error.
Reduced from eight to six teams, the competition has been compacted into a 10-week season.
"It is going to be unbelievably tough," said the Lions' caretaker coach Johan Ackermann – who has to deal not only with the cut-throat onfield business of coaching, but has a number of sideshows to contend with.
While the disciplinary hearing of suspended head coach John Mitchell will remain unresolved till at least next month, the uncertainty of Super Rugby participation in 2013 (another issue postponed till September) means players are starting to look elsewhere for job security.
While the Golden Lions Rugby Union has repeatedly stated that they have secured the services of the bulk of their senior players beyond 2012, the departure of players like Paul Willemse and Grant Hattingh confirms earlier reports that some players are looking elsewhere.
Despite all this, Ackermann is adamant that his team can defend their crown in what will be a demanding campaign.
"It is a very compact competition," he said of the 10-week sprint, adding: "And every week you'll be up against top competition.
"It will be exciting, but also a very demanding competition."
Despite all the coaching drama, Ackermann feels the team is in the right frame of mind before their opening encounter.
"We are comfortable and the spirit in the team is great," the former Springbok lock told this website, adding: "The guys have been working hard or a few weeks now.
"We have lost Pat [Cilliers] and Elton [Jantjies] to the Springboks, but the rest of the guys have been training together for some time now.
"Once those injured players start returning our depth will be fine – then it is a matter of the players putting their hands up."
Ackermann said that while retaining the Currie Cup is a priority, they are also keen to "entertain".
"We are determined to make all the players part of the game," he said, when asked about a possible change in the game plan.
"Yes, winning is important to us, but we also want to play good rugby.
"We will adjust our tactics every week, depending on our opposition, but at the end of the day the players must to express themselves.
"They must be given the opportunity, in that game plan, to express themselves.
"We don't want to be branded as a one-dimensional team and we'll adjust every week.
"The players enjoy the fact that they are all part of the game plan and it [our game] is not based on just one or two players.
"We will continue with those tactics and hopefully that will bring us success."
By Jan de Koning