This weekend will mark the completion of the first block of United Rugby Championship (URC) fixtures, and for the Lions it will be the opportunity to make one final impression on the competition in 2023.
The Dragons clash at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday (kick-off is at 5.05pm) will be the home side’s final URC game this year, and while the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will all play each other in the coming weekends this month, the Lions will only return to the tournament on January 6, when they travel to Durban to face the Sharks.
Instead, the Joburgers will pivot their focus to the EPCR Challenge Cup, starting next weekend, when they travel to the foot of the Pyrenees in southern France to play Top 14 club Perpignan and then complete the year a week later at home against Newcastle Falcons.
But first, the Welsh franchise awaits.
Lions skipper Marius Louw insisted that they would show the Dragons only respect, but perhaps they should mix in a little bit of “superior discontent” as former Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber would have put it.
“They are a very good attacking team, and they are a very big threat,” said Louw.
“Last season, we played them in the URC at home, and we won, then we drew in the EPCR game about two weeks after. They never go laying down and they always put up a big fight.
“Their defence – they have put a lot more emphasis on that, and they are getting off the line a bit more, putting on a bit of pressure, getting turnover balls. They are much better than what the results have shown, and we are under no illusions.”
The bookies have the hosts as the outright favourites and are predicting a comfortable victory on the Highveld. It is easy to understand why.
For starters, the Lions have never lost to the Dragons in four encounters – the 31-31 draw being the only blemish on that record. The Dragons have won only one of their six matches this season – against the Ospreys – and are rooted to the bottom of the standings with little hope of escaping.
Moreover, according to the URC, the Newport-based side are 15th in their attacking stats, 14th in defence and 15th in discipline, while they are the worst scrummaging unit in the tournament, with an at-best average line-out.
Admittedly, the Lions also find themselves in the bottom half of the standings – 10th with 14 points – and will in all probability renew their URC campaign in 2024 somewhere around there, but with games in hand.
The general consensus, however, is that they have the ability and personnel to force an upward trajectory.
In contrast, all their stats so far in the competition, except for their defence, are in the Top 8 of the competition; and that is where the Lions know they must be on the log as well. Indeed, there is a belief in the team that they are only getting better.
Said the 28-year-old Louw of the campaign so far: “The wins haven’t rolled in as much as we wanted them to.
“In terms of collecting points on the road as much as possible, we have succeeded in getting either points or bonus points in every game.
“Last season, that was a very big decider that kept us out of the competition, with teams having the same number of wins or one more, but bonus points played a big role.
“Collecting them as much as possible in the beginning and then once you are home making that a fortress with some wins under the belt and some bonus points, that is the most important part.
“On tour you could see the progress of the team and the win getting closer, the performance getting better.
“Overall, I am very proud of how things have gone, considering the performance and the bonus points … we are on the right track and more wins will come.”
The Lions face the Dragons with an unchanged match-day 23 from the one that smashed Zebre 61-19 last weekend.
15 Quan Horn, 14 Richard Kriel, 13 Henco van Wyk, 12 Marius Louw (capt), 11 Edwill van der Merwe, 10 Sanele Nohamba, 9 Morne van den Berg, 8 Francke Horn, 7 Ruan Venter, 6 Emmanuel Tshituka, 5 Ruben Schoeman, 4 Ruan Delport, 3 Asenathi Ntlabakanye, 2 PJ Botha, 1 JP Smith.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Hanru Sirgel, 21 JC Pretorius, 22 Jordan Hendrikse, 23 Rabz Maxwane.