Lions (Super Rugby)

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Lions rugby logo 2007.png
Full name Lions
Union South African Rugby Union
Emblem(s) Lion
Founded 1996
Location Johannesburg, South Africa
Region Johannesburg
Northern Cape
Ground(s) Emirates Airline Park (Capacity: 62,567)
Coach(es) Swys de Bruin
Captain(s) Warren Whiteley
Most caps Cobus Grobbelaar (94)
Top scorer Elton Jantjies (812)
Most tries Courtnall Skosan (25)
League(s) Super Rugby
2017 Finalists
1st (Africa 2 Conference)
1st (South African Group)
1st (overall)
1st kit
2nd kit
Official website

The Lions (known as the Emirates Lions for sponsorship reasons) are a South African professional rugby union team who compete in the Super Rugby competition. They were previously known as the Cats between the 1998 and 2006 seasons. They had varied results in the competition, finishing at the bottom of the table six times (in 1998, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012), but reaching the semifinal stage four times (in 2000, 2001, 2016 and 2017). They reached their first final in 2016 – where the lost to the Hurricanes 20–3 in Wellington – and repeated the feat in 2017, losing 17–25 to the Crusaders in Johannesburg.

The team faced relegation from the Super 14 after the Southern Spears won a court ruling that they should be included in the competition in place of the lowest ranked South African team in the 2006 competition. However, the Spears and the country's national federation, the South African Rugby Union, reached a settlement of their legal case. By the terms of the settlement, announced on 16 November 2006, the financially troubled Spears abandoned their case.[1]

As part of a second attempt to introduce Super Rugby into the Eastern Cape, after finishing bottom of the 2012 Super Rugby table, the South African Rugby Union mandated that the Lions be replaced in the 2013 competition by the Southern Kings from Port Elizabeth.[2] The Lions exclusion lasted just one season as they regained their place in Super Rugby for the 2014 season by beating the Southern Kings in a two leg playoff after the Kings finished bottom of the 2013 South African conference.

During the 2016 Super Rugby season play-offs, the Lions defeated the South Island teams (Crusaders and Highlanders) to reach the championship final, in which they were defeated 20-3 by the Hurricanes.


Transvaal/Gauteng Lions (1996–97)[edit]

When the Super 12 was launched in 1996, both Australia and New Zealand created franchise-based models for their teams in the new tournament. South Africa however, used the previous seasons Currie Cup to determine what provinces would be promoted to the new international tournament. The Transvaal Rugby Union were promoted in the first ever season, winning three of their 11 fixtures, finishing in 10th position on the end of season ladder, above the Canterbury Crusaders and the Western Province.

Transvaal were again promoted to the Super 12 for the 1997 season, and played under the title of the Gauteng Lions. The Lions' season was a lot more successful than their results in the inaugural season. The Lions won and lost five matches, and drawing one, to finish in fifth place overall on the end of season table, two points behind the fourth-placed Natal Sharks, narrowly missing out on a place in the finals.

Cats (1998–2005)[edit]

Cats logo.

For the 1998 season SA Rugby changed the Currie Cup qualification process for the Super 12, following Australia and New Zealand by forming provincial franchises. The Cats, or Golden Cats were established as one of the four new franchises, and were centered around the Golden Lions, as well as the Leopards and Pumas, as well as drawing from the Free State, Griffons and Griquas. The Cats home ground was to be shared between Ellis Park and the Free State Stadium.

The Cats did not make the finals in their first two seasons, but the appointment of former New Zealand coach Laurie Mains for the 2000 season signalled a change in fortunes. After defeating the Bulls in Pretoria in the opening round, they also defeated the Stormers at home in round two. However, the Cats' good fortunes soon went sour as they fell to four straight losses, even going down 64–0 to the Brumbies. The losing streak was snapped when the Cats pulled off a one-point victory over the Sharks in Durban. Following a bye, the Cats stormed through the remainder of the season undefeated to finish in fourth position, their best finish yet, as well as qualifying for a semi-final.

The semi-final was played at the Brumbies' home ground in Canberra, with the homeside winning 28–3 to knock the Cats out of the finals. The 2001 Super 12 season started off in a positive style for the Cats; defeating the Stormers 29–24, and then crushing the Highlanders 56–21, as well as narrowly losing a reply of last season's semi-final against the Brumbies 19–17. The Cats qualified for the finals again, finishing in third place bettering last season's fourth. However, they were again knocked out in the semi-finals, losing 30–12, this time to the Sharks. The Cats did not qualify for the finals the next few seasons. Then the Super 12 was expanded into the Super 14 for the 2006 season, with the addition of two new teams; the Cheetahs and the Western Force. The Cats finished in 13th place overall.

Lions (2006–)[edit]

On 8 September 2006, the Golden Lions Rugby Union, the union that at the time operated both the Golden Lions and the Cats, announced that the team would be known in the future as the Lions, and unveiled a new logo.[3][4]

During the 2010 Super 14 season, the Lions lost all 13 games of the season, setting a new record. The previous record was held by the Bulls, with 0 wins from the 11 game season in 2002. On 20 January 2011, the club announced a 3-year sponsorship deal with telecoms company MTN.[5] From 2011 to 2012 they were known as the MTN Lions for sponsorship reasons. Ivor Ichikowitz and Robert Gumede pledged to purchase a 49.9% stake in the club through their investment company GumaTac in October 2010. The deal fell apart in 2011 due to differences with GLRU executives.[6] In February 2011, the club signed Springbok fly-half Butch James[7] among other high-profile signings Lionel Mapoe, Pat Cilliers and Rory Kockott.[8]

Relegation and Lions Challenge Series, 2012-[edit]

After finishing on the bottom of the Super Rugby table for the third time in five seasons, South African Rugby Union (SARU) officials voted in August 2012 to relegate the Lions from the competition and promote the Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings.[9]
On 10 January 2013, the GLRU launched a schedule of 16 matches called the 2013 Lions Challenge Series. This series would begin on January 19 against Russia, and conclude on July 20 against Top 14 team Grenoble, to be followed by the Super Rugby promotion/relegation play-off.[10][11] At the launch of the series, President Kevin de Klerk said:

We took major umbrage to the decision made in Cape Town last year to relegate us, and the easy route would have been to play the blame game and look for scapegoats... But we have decided to get on with the rugby and ensure we continue to serve our stakeholders."[11]

Unfortunately several of the scheduled Lions Challenge games, including a proposed tour to the United States, never took place. Thus the idea of a Challenge Series was perceived to have failed. But despite not having the best lead up to the important Super Rugby promotion match-up with the Southern Kings later that year, the Lions ended up winning the two legged series. Thus they were promoted back into Super Rugby for 2014.

Resurgence: 2014-[edit]

The Lions returned to Super Rugby by defeating the Cheetahs in their first match back in the competition. They ended up winning 7 out of 16 matches and ended 12th, above the Reds, Cheetahs and Rebels. The 2015 season brought even more success to the union as they won 9 out of 16 matches, including 3 out of 4 matches on tour to Australasia. The Lions unfortunately lost out to a spot in the play-offs when they drew to the Stormers in their final group stage match. The 2016 season was expanded to 18 teams with The Jaguares(Argentina), Sunwolves(Japan) and Southern Kings(South Africa) joining the competition. The Lions would start the season on tour beating the Sunwolves and Chiefs but losing to the Highlanders in the final game. The Lions would go on to win 11 out of 15 matches in the group stages to top the Africa 2 conference and top the Africa group and were awarded with their first conference trophy. They ended 2nd on the overall log and qualified for their first knockout match since being re-branded as the Lions. In the quarter-final they beat the Crusaders and the Highlanders in the semi-final to qualify for their first final since the current Super Rugby competition began in 1996. On 6 August they played in the final against The Hurricanes away from home with cold, wet and windy conditions that would favor the home team, as they lost 20-3. In the 2017 season the Lions would get an easier draw, which meant they only had to face Australian teams and no New Zealand teams. With this advantage they would win 14 out of 15 matches, only losing one game away from home to the Jaguares due to sending another weaker team to Argentina. The Lions would not regret the decision as they would top the overall log to gain home advantage throughout the playoffs. The Lions would go on to beat the Sharks in the quarter final and were tasked to face their first New Zealand opposition in the semi final, the Hurricanes, whom they would defeat. The Lions became only the second South African franchise since the Bulls (2009, 2010) to qualify for back-to-back finals. They hosted the final at Emirates Airline Park against the Crusaders (setting the record for attendance at a Super Rugby final in the process), but lost 25-17 as they were forced to play much of the match short-handed after second-rower Kwagga Smith was sent off for a late tackle in the air.

Season summaries[edit]

The following table summarises the Lions' results in their Super Rugby seasons:

Team name Competition name Season Played Won Drawn Lost Log position Champ R-up SF QF Coach Captain
Transvaal Super 12 1996 11 3 0 8 10 of 12 Kitch Christie Francois Pienaar
Gauteng Lions 1997 11 5 1 5 5 of 12 Ray Mordt Kobus Wiese
Golden Cats 1998 11 2 0 9 12 of 12 Peet Kleynhans Hannes Strydom
Cats 1999 11 4 0 6 11 of 12 Andre Markgraaff Rassie Erasmus
2000 11 7 0 4 4 of 12 Laurie Mains André Vos
2001 11 7 0 4 3 of 12 Rassie Erasmus
2002 11 1 0 10 11 of 12 Rudy Joubert Jannes Labuschagné
2003 11 2 0 9 12 of 12 Tim Lane Bobby Skinstad
2004 11 1 0 10 12 of 12 Chester Williams Wikus van Heerden
2005 11 1 1 9 11 of 12
Lions Super 14 2006 13 2 0 10 13 of 14 Frans Ludeke
2007 13 5 0 8 12 of 14 Eugene Eloff André Pretorius
2008 13 2 1 10 14 of 14 Ernst Joubert
2009 13 4 0 9 12 of 14 Cobus Grobbelaar
2010 13 0 0 13 14 of 14 Dick Muir
Super Rugby 2011 16 3 1 12 14 of 15 John Mitchell Franco van der Merwe
2012 16 3 0 13 15 of 15 Josh Strauss
2013 Did not participate(Played in Promotion/Relegation Play-Offs)
2014 16 7 0 9 12 of 15 Johan Ackermann Warren Whiteley
2015 16 9 1 6 8 of 15
2016 15 11 0 4 2 of 18
2017 15 14 0 1 1 of 18
Legend: Champ = Champions, R-up = Runners-up, SF = Semi-final appearance, QF = Qualifying final appearance.


They are based in Johannesburg, and have always been centred around the Lions union (Johannesburg), drawing players from that union since the inception of the competition as Super 12 in 1996.

Through 2005, the Cats also drew players from the two unions based in Free State —the Free State Cheetahs (Bloemfontein) and Griffons (Welkom)— and the Griquas (Northern Cape). That arrangement ended when the Cheetahs were admitted to the competition.

Starting in 2006, they drew players from the Leopards (North West) and Pumas (Mpumalanga) unions, which previously were in the franchise areas of the Bulls.

From the start of 2017, they could only draw players from the Griquas (Northern Cape).


The Lions' home ground is Ellis Park Stadium (known for sponsorship reasons as the Emirates Airline Park), named after an employee from the Johannesburg City Council, Mr JD Ellis, with whom the rugby union negotiated to acquire the land on which the stadium is built. The stadium is in Johannesburg. Ellis Park hosted a number of matches at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, including the final, which was played out between the All Blacks and South Africa, which saw South Africa win the William Webb Ellis Cup in an emotional final.

Current squad[edit]

The Lions announced the following squad for the 2017 Super Rugby season:[12]

Lions Super Rugby squad




Loose Forwards






(c) Denotes team captain and Bold denotes internationally capped.


Years Captain
1996 Francois Pienaar
1997 Kobus Wiese
1998 Hannes Strydom
1999 Rassie Erasmus
2000 André Vos
2001 Rassie Erasmus
2002 Jannes Labuschagné
2003 Bobby Skinstad
2004–2006 Wikus van Heerden
2007 André Pretorius
2008 Ernst Joubert
2009–2010 Cobus Grobbelaar
2011 Franco van der Merwe
2012 Josh Strauss
2013 JC Janse van Rensburg
2014–present Warren Whiteley


The current head coach of the Lions super rugby team is Johan Ackermann, who has held the position since 2013.

Coach Tenure Matches Won Drawn Lost Winning Percentage
Kitch Christie 1996 11 3 0 8 27.3%
Ray Mordt 1997 11 5 1 5 45.5%
Peet Kleynhans 1998 11 2 0 9 18.2%
Andre Markgraaff 1999 11 4 0 6 36.4%
Laurie Mains 2000–2001 22 14 0 8 63.6%
Rudy Joubert 2002 11 1 0 9 9.1%
Tim Lane 2003 11 2 0 9 18.2%
Chester Williams 2004–2005 22 2 1 19 9.1%
Frans Ludeke 2006 13 2 1 10 15.4%
Eugene Eloff 2007–2009 39 11 1 27 28.2%
Dick Muir 2010 13 0 0 13 0%
John Mitchell 2011–2012 32 6 1 25 18.8%
Johan Ackermann 2013–2017 69 46 1 22 66.7%
Swys de Bruin 2018– 0 0 0 0 0%


  • Runners-up

2016, 2017

  • Semi-Finalists

2000, 2001

  • Group Winners

2016, 2017

  • Conference Champions

2016, 2017


  1. ^ "Spears abandon their Super conquest". Planet Rugby. 16 November 2006. Retrieved 22 November 2006. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "From Cats to Lions ... the new look". Planet Rugby. 8 September 2006. Archived from the original on 21 May 2007. Retrieved 12 September 2006. 
  4. ^ "Golden Lions Rugby Union announces new Lions International Brand". Golden Lions Rugby Union. 8 September 2006. Archived from the original on 27 October 2006. Retrieved 13 January 2007. 
  5. ^ SA Sports Business
  6. ^ Bauer, Nickolaus (1 July 2011). "'Dysfunctional' Lions acted in bad faith, says Gumede". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 10 December 2011. 
  7. ^ The National
  8. ^ Super XV
  9. ^ AFP (22 August 2012). "Lions replaced by Kings in Super Rugby". 
  10. ^ "Lions up against the best". SuperSport. 10 January 2013. 
  11. ^ a b "Lions lay down the gauntlet". Rugby365. 10 January 2013. 
  12. ^ "Teams main : Super Rugby". Lions. Archived from the original on 10 February 2017. Retrieved 10 February 2017. 

External links[edit]