JOHANNESBURG – Some will call it a gamble, others will call it smart squad management. Whichever way you look at it, Lions coach Swys de Bruin has his work cut out for him when his team leave for their three-week Super Rugby tour of Australasia today.
First on the agenda will be to find the right mix to take on the Brumbies in their tour opener on Saturday and the good news there, fortunately, is that loose-forwards Kwagga Smith and Cyle Brink are back after injury layoffs.
Smith, who up until his injury setback in round five was his team’s best and most consistent performer, will add skill, pace and experience to the back-row. Brink, who returned last weekend after spending the last eight months on the sidelines, will have shaken off the rust and bring experience and beef to the loose trio. They are both sure to start in Canberra.
Unfortunately regular captain Warren Whiteley is expected to only join the squad next week following his recovery from a pectoral muscle injury in round two. The squad that leaves tonight consists of 26 players, with a 27th spot left vacant and to possibly be filled next week, according to Lions management.
But while the pack is the most experienced De Bruin could pick as there are injuries to several key men who are either Lions stalwarts or players who have featured regularly this season, it is at the back where the coach is taking some risk.
He has opted to leave exciting centre Wandisile Simelane at home, and young outside back Tyrone Green too, as well as experienced centre Harold Vorster. Instead, De Bruin is banking on the experienced Ruan Combrinck to come good, while on-loan Bulls centre Franco Naude is the only specialist No 12 in the tour party.
There are also four wings among the backs, but Aphiwe Dyantyi also covers outside centre, while Sylvian Mahuza and Combrinck can also play at fullback.
De Bruin and his charges have it all to do on tour. They have slipped to third place in the South African conference following their 42-5 defeat to the Sharks, with four wins from their seven matches.
The Brumbies may be down in fourth spot with just two wins from their seven matches in the Australian conference, but they are always a tough team to get the better of, while the Chiefs are the most unpredictable, and dangerous, team in Super Rugby this year. And the Crusaders are again a top side this year, with just one defeat in eight matches.
The Lions will have six matches left to play when they return home and they will hope they don’t still only have four wins behind their name. The next three weeks on the road will make or break their season.