As the United Rugby Championship looms, we're telling you all you need to know about the four new South African teams in the league, and next up is the Emirates Lions.
Who are the Lions and where do they play?
The Emirates Lions are based in South Africa's capital Johannesburg, and play out of the 62,000 capacity Emirates Airline Park - better known as Ellis Park Stadium - which hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
At an altitude of more than 1,700 metres, opposition teams are set to be huffing and puffing early when they travel into the Lions' den.
What’s their history?
Despite their location in the country’s largest city, the Lions have only achieved modest success down the years.
When it comes to Super Rugby, they competed as 'the Cats’ until 2006, having drawn their player base from the Golden Lions, Pumas and Leopards Currie Cup sides. However, in 2007 they took on the title as the Lions.
They reached two semi-finals in the early days of Super Rugby before largely becoming an irrelevance in the competition during the 00’s, to the extent they were relegated from the competition in 2012.
However, it was just a temporary absence, winning their place back the following season in a play-off with the Southern Kings.
With the night being darkest before the dawn, their return to Super Rugby brought them a new life.
Assembling an incredible cast of players, the Lions reached three consecutive Grand Finals in 2016, 2017 and 2018 under the coaching of future Gloucester boss Johann Ackermann, but were beaten by the Hurricanes and twice by the Crusaders in those deciders.
A look through their teamsheets from those three finals shows the extent of the talent they were working with; Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert, Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe played in all three of those finals, Faf de Klerk, Kwagga Smith, Warren Whiteley and Ruan Ackerman played two of the three, while Marvin Orie and Aphiwe Dyantyi had arrived on the scene by 2018.
Just three years have passed since the last of those finals, and while Whiteley (retired) and Dyantyi (doping ban) are no longer playing, not one of those other eight stars are still contracted to the Lions, Jantjies effectively turning the lights off behind him when he agreed a move to Japan this summer.
Domestically, the Lions have won six Currie Cups in the modern era (fourth in the roll of honour), with their last title (2015) and final appearance (2019) appropriately bookending their Super Rugby success.
Most recently, they finished bottom of the table in the Currie Cup, winning just two games out of 12, while their Rainbow Cup SA form wasn’t much better with one win out of six.
If we want to spin things positively, the fact that the Lions don’t currently have any players in the Springboks squad would suggest a settled group, with continuity aplenty.
The reality, however, is that this is a squad that is likely to struggle, even with their advantage of Johannesburg altitude.
To put their collapse since 2018 into context, of the 34 players used across their three Super Rugby final appearances, tighthead prop Ruan Dreyer, and back row Jaco Kriel are the only members of that group who have been named in the touring squad for the opening rounds of the URC. Both players even joined their former head coach Ackermann at Gloucester, before returning to the Lions in 2020.
Dreyer and Kriel, who have previous Test experience with South Africa, are among several veteran players in the Lions squad.
However, none have the CV of 2007 World Cup-winning prop Jannie de Plessis. He linked up with the Lions this season, and despite turning 39 in November will be part of their URC squad.
Another familiar name is that of 20-year-old forward Ruhan Straeuli, son of 1995 World Cup winner Rudolf, who just so happens to be the CEO of the Lions.
They do have a potential match winner in the form of Rabz Maxwane (above) on the wing. The 25-year-old’s name will sound familiar to regular Pro14 viewers.
Maxwane was a lethal finisher with the Cheetahs, named to the Pro14 Dream Team in 2019 after scoring 14 tries that season, and his overall record with the team was a highly impressive 19 tries in 31 games.
Meanwhile Wandisile Simelane has potential to be a star, but endured a tough time in camp with South Africa this summer, failing to make his test debut.
Young players to watch
There is a decent smattering of future talent at the Lions.
Top of that list is Jordan Hendrikse, younger brother of Sharks and Springbok scrum-half Jaden. The former Baby Bok was thrown in at the deep end when he started their meeting with the British and Irish Lions in July, just a few days after turning 20-years-old, and while they were on the end of a hefty defeat, the rookie handled himself well.
Despite his age, he’s been their first choice 10 for both the Rainbow Cup SA and the Currie Cup, finishing as the team’s top scorer in each.
Another young player who impressed during their meeting with the British and Irish Lions this summer was flanker Vincent Tshituka. The 23-year-old was the standout performer for the Lions that day, leading their numbers in both tackles and carries, and deservedly scored their opening try of the match.
He looks every bit a future Test player, while his younger brother Emmanuel (20), also a flanker, also comes highly rated.
Who are the coaches?
If there is an air of positivity to be found around the Lions, it’s in their coaching ticket.
Head coach Ivan van Rooyen is a product of the Lions system, working up from strength and conditioning coach with their underage sides in 2009, to his appointment as head coach in 2019.
Following the disastrous Currie Cup campaign this summer, many feared he’d be sacked, but instead the club have decided to make changes around him.
The most recognisable name to join him is that of Jaque Fourie (below). The 72-cap Springbok spent the first seven years of his career at Ellis Park, and will take charge of their defence, a role he filled with the USA for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Two more former Springbok players have joined the coaching team.
Albert van den Bergh, a World Cup winner in 2007, has been appointed forwards coach. The 47-year old has previously coached in Japan, and joins following a successful period with the Griquas’ Currie Cup side.
New backs coach Ricardo Laubscher has experience both playing and coaching Test rugby with the Boks, working as part of Heyneke Meyer’s backroom team between 2012 and 2015, before linking back up with Meyer at Stade Francais.
When do they play the Irish sides?
The Lions will be on Irish soil twice during the 2021/22 URC season.
They take on Ulster at Kingspan Stadium on Friday 15 October, what will be the final leg on their first European tour.
But they will be back in the new year, taking on Leinster at the RDS on Friday, 7 January.
In between those tours, they have a run of home games, and among their guests will be Munster, who they host at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday 4 December.