Lions aim for flying starting 2017
Beaten finalists in last season's Investec Super Rugby competition the Lions, out of Johannesburg, are expected to hit the tournament running when they play their first game on February 25.
Most of the side's Japanese-based players in the off-season, will rejoin the Lions this week which will mean coach Johan Ackermann will have longer than he did last year to get the side prepared.
Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel, Warwick Tecklenburg, captain Warren Whitely, Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe have all been playing in Japan but are expected back in South Africa from Wednesday.
However, they will not be considered for warm-up games on Saturday, against the Bulls in Harare, and a week later against the combined Barbarians at Ellis Park.
Another player Ackermann is hoping will return is lock Andries Ferreira, a key performer in the side's season. He has a dual contract which allows him to play for Toulon during the South African Currie Cup season.
Missing from the side for the full season will be tighthead prop Julian Redelinghuys who broke his neck playing for the Springboks last year. Loosehead prop Dylan Smith is not expected to return until March while recovering from a shoulder injury and Springbok wing Ruan Combrinck will not return until April while he also gets over a shoulder injury.
But centre Harold Vorster has reported fit again while lock Marvin Orie has joined the side from the Bulls.
The Lions opening game is against the Cheetahs on February 25.
Meanwhile, Bulls coach Nollis Marais, just up the road from the Lions in Pretoria, says it is time for the Bulls to rule Super Rugby again.
The three-time champions (2007, 09, 10) may lack big name players, and experience, but Marais believes they have the requisite talent and hunger.
"Making the play-offs is non-negotiable. We want to win Super Rugby. We now have depth in the squad and we have a very good side that can go all the way. But we have to make [the] play-offs, that's our main aim," he told The Pretoria News.
While the Bulls just missed the play-offs last year, they also didn't play any New Zealand teams in the competition and they face a hectic away programme to start their season.
Marais called a crucial part of the Bulls' season 'the month from hell'.
"Out of my first seven games, I only have one at home [against the Stormers]. We'll play the Sunwolves at home before travelling to New Zealand and then we come home when the month from hell starts with the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Crusaders and the Lions.
"We are looking forward to it and seeing how the players get through it. Our aim has always been to win it [the competition]," he said.