Lions (Super Rugby)

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 Elton Jantjies (108)
Top scorer Elton Jantjies (992)
Most tries Lionel Mapoe,
Courtnall Skosan and
Malcolm Marx (27)
League(s) Super Rugby
2018 Finalist
1st (South African Conference)
2nd (overall)
1st kit
2nd kit
Official website
Current season

The Lions (known as the Emirates Lions for sponsorship reasons) are a South African professional rugby union team from Johannesburg 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 five times (in 2000, 2001, 2016, 2017 and 2018). They reached their first final in 2016 – where they 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 (1993–95)

The Super 10 was a rugby union football tournament featuring ten teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Tonga, and Western Samoa. The competition ran for three years from 1993 to 1995 and was the predecessor of Super 12 and Super 14, now known as Super Rugby. Transvaal won the competition in 1993 beating Auckland 20-17 at Ellispark in the final after winning all four their pool games and were finalists again in 1995, losing to Queensland.

Transvaal/Gauteng Lions (1996–97)

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)

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–)

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-

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–present

Determined to establish themselves as a top team in Super Rugby, the Lions made wholesale changes to the team, including hiring Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin as main coaches, overhauling much of the playing squad, and adopting a much more open and fluid playing style. 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. This was Ackermann's final game as head coach, having previously accepted a move to Aviva Premiership side Gloucester Rugby for 2017-18: de Bruin was promoted as his replacement for 2018.

Season summaries

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
TransvaalSuper 121996 1130810 of 12Kitch ChristieFrancois Pienaar
Gauteng Lions1997 115155 of 12Ray MordtKobus Wiese
Golden Cats1998 1120912 of 12Peet KleynhansHannes Strydom
Cats1999 1140611 of 12Andre MarkgraaffRassie Erasmus
2000 117044 of 12Laurie MainsAndré Vos
2001 117043 of 12Rassie Erasmus
2002 11101011 of 12Rudy JoubertJannes Labuschagné
2003 1120912 of 12Tim LaneBobby Skinstad
2004 11101012 of 12Chester WilliamsWikus van Heerden
2005 1111911 of 12
LionsSuper 142006 13201013 of 14Frans Ludeke
2007 1350812 of 14Eugene EloffAndré Pretorius
2008 13211014 of 14Ernst Joubert
2009 1340912 of 14Cobus Grobbelaar
2010 13001314 of 14Dick Muir
Super Rugby2011 16311214 of 15John MitchellFranco van der Merwe
2012 16301315 of 15Josh Strauss
2013 Did not participate(Played in Promotion/Relegation Play-Offs)
2014 1670912 of 15Johan AckermannWarren Whiteley
2015 169168 of 15
2016 1511042 of 18
2017 1514011 of 18
2018 169072 of 15Swys de Bruin
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

The Lions announced the following squad for the 2018 Super Rugby season:[12]

Lions Super Rugby squad




Loose Forwards






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


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


The current head coach of the Lions super rugby team is Swys de Bruin, who has been the head coach since 2018.

CoachTenureMatchesWonDrawnLostWinning Percentage
Kitch Christie19961130827.3%
Ray Mordt19971151545.5%
Peet Kleynhans19981120918.2%
Andre Markgraaff19991140636.4%
Laurie Mains2000–200122140863.6%
Rudy Joubert2002111099.1%
Tim Lane20031120918.2%
Chester Williams2004–20052221199.1%
Frans Ludeke200613211015.4%
Eugene Eloff2007–2009391112728.2%
Dick Muir20101300130%
John Mitchell2011–201232612518.8%
Johan Ackermann2014–2017684512266.2%
Swys de Bruin2018–present19110857.9%


  • Runners-up

2016, 2017, 2018

  • Semi-Finalists

2000, 2001

  • Group Winners

2016, 2017

  • Conference Champions

2016, 2017, 2018

Team Statistics & Records

  • Most tries in a season 92 -2017 (SA record)
  • Most tries in a match 14 -2017 (Superugby record)
  • Highest Score in match 94 -2017 (SA record)
  • Most Points in a season 674 - 2017 (Superugby record)
  • Highest winning margin 87 -2017 (2nd most)
  • Most wins in a season 16 -2017 (SA Record)
  • Most home wins in a season 9 -2017 (SA Record)
  • Most Consecutive wins 12
  • Most Consecutive home wins 13
  • Most Consecutive away wins 6
  • Most Consecutive wins versus South-African teams 19
  • Most Consecutive Conference Titles 3 (SA Record; tied with Stormers)
  • Most Consecutive Finals Appearances 3 (SA Record)

Individual Statistics & Records


  1. "Spears abandon their Super conquest". Planet Rugby. 16 November 2006. Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  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. 1 2 "Lions lay down the gauntlet". Rugby365. 10 January 2013.
  12. @LionsRugbyCo (30 January 2018). "The Lions Rugby Company (Pty) Ltd. has announced its Emirates Lions 2018 Vodacom @SuperRugby squad. #LetsUnite #TheLionsWay" (Tweet). Retrieved 30 January 2018 via Twitter.
  13. "Nic Groom to leave Saints with immediate effect" (Press release). Northampton Saints. 3 April 2018. Archived from the original on 3 April 2018. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
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