JOHANNESBURG - How dramatically the rugby landscape has changed in the last few years. When the Springboks kick off their 2017 season against France in Pretoria on June 10, the side will be led by Warren Whiteley of the Lions and the team is likely to be full of his provincial teammates.
But rewind two years to 2015 and not one Lions player was in Heyneke Meyer’s 31-man World Cup squad. Not one. Go back four years to 2013 and the Lions didn’t even play in the Super Rugby competition. In June that year, when the Boks faced Italy, Scotland and Samoa, not one Lions player was even considered for the Bok side.
Now there are nine Lions players in the 31-man squad that will start preparations for the France series next week. And it could have been more had Julian Redelinghuys been fit and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, and even Howard Mnisi.
Many will even suggest Ruan Ackermann and Jacques van Rooyen should have been included in the SA “A” team, if not the Bok squad.
So, two years on from the World Cup, the Lions have produced Whiteley, now as captain, Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Courtnall Skosan, Lionel Mapoe, Janse van Rensburg, Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk, Ross Cronje, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Malcolm Marx, Redelinghuys and “A” team players Mnisi (2016) and Harold Vorster and Andries Ferreira for the series against the French Barbarians. Marnitz Boshoff, now with Connacht, also became a Bok while at the Lions.
Head coach Johan Ackermann, himself a decorated Lions man who has been named Coach of the Year on three occasions, said he could not be prouder of his players who have been rewarded for their hard work.
“I am thankful that we could produce these players who can go forward and represent their country,” said an emotional Ackermann when asked about his feelings about how things have changed in recent years.
“These guys have worked extremely hard to get to where they are now. But it’s not just the individuals who’ve been recognised that I want to talk about, but all the players, even the ones who missed out. Nothing is possible without the team I’m immensely proud.”
Under Ackermann’s guidance, the Lions came back from not playing Super Rugby in 2013 to contesting the Currie Cup final in 2014, winning it in 2015 and playing in the Super Rugby final last season. They are again well on their way to featuring prominently in Super Rugby in the latter stages of the competition this year.
Ackermann highlighted the paths Andries Coetzee, Ross Cronjé and Courtnall Skosan had to walk to get into the Bok squad.
“They all experienced disappointment at other unions. But they came here and put in the hard work, that’s all I asked for. They worked on their skills and didn’t get the recognition until now. They’re the perfect example of hanging in there, of being resilient, of showing commitment, never giving up.
“These guys, and the others, never stopped working, they put hours in on the training ground.
“A guy like Courtnall he came and sat in my office a few years ago and spoke to me. He was playing for Tuks at the time. He bought into our vision, he worked hard, but there came a time when I had to drop him, he just wasn’t playing well. He worked harder, he put the hours in and last year he got no reward for that. He also missed the first two Bok camps this year, but now look at him. It shows how much character he’s got.
“But he’s not the only one. I think of Ruan Dreyer the disappointments he’s had to overcome.”
Then, of course, there is Whiteley.