Johannesburg - When it was revealed that former Lions’ stalwart and skipper Elton Jantjies, and young sensation Gianni Lombard were departing the union, supporters would have been forgiven if a tinge of trepidation and panic set in.
After all, Jantjies was considered the backbone of this Lions side; while his understudy, Lombard, was to be the leading protagonist within the team in the not-so-distant future. It was a massive blow for the team, its management and the fans.
Subsequently, former Cheetahs’ man Fred Zeilinga was co-opted into the team on a trial basis to fill the gap at pivot last year, and although much was expected from the 28-year-old, his arrival at the Johannesburg-based team was not an auspicious one. And while it is true that Zeilinga failed to impress initially, his most recent outing - against the Stormers in December – showcased just how good a player he can be.
Nonetheless, the 28-year-old admitted this week in a media briefing that getting to that performance was not money for old rope.
“Ja, I would say the last couple of years with Covid (has made it more difficult),” revealed Zeilinga. “It has been a real struggle and it hasn’t been easy.
“Yes, I had to prove myself numerous times and I think I still have to. I will take it week-by-week and game-by-game. I believe in myself; I believe in my abilities ... I am fortunate to be where I am now, where I am at, and hopefully I can just build these next couple of years and just get better and better.”
Before joining the Lions, Zeilinga enjoyed a stint in Japan with the Yokohama Canon Eagles, and he believes that experience has refined his game, making him more mindful of his attacking options – which will be a boon for the Lions in the United Rugby Championship (URC).
Explained Zeilinga: “Everyone has got this mindset that it is easy over there (in Japan) and that you are on a break.
“That was the sort of feedback I got when I was over there but now, I think with the 2019 World Cup and how well Japan played, it sort of opened up the world’s eyes to what is going on in Japan. They play a very attacking brand of rugby, high-skill rugby.
“Personally, it opened up my game for attacking kicks and identifying space. It is not the usual South African way of kicking it long, or just kicking up-and-unders. With the type of players you get there, you sort of have to open up your game to other scenarios.
“I think that helped me quite a lot. I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of the Japanese players, so I learnt a lot of them workrate-wise.”
Moreover, his education in the art of Japanese rugby – according to Zeilinga – will help further develop his own kicking-game into what can probably only be described as a hybrid model.
“I won’t really say Japan was good practice (regarding the kicking game) because they just want to run everything,” he explained, “or kick everything short with little grubbers, so coming back here you have to adapt …
“I feel like I have to adapt again to a European-type style of rugby. It has been challenging but luckily, I have played with the Cheetahs in the Pro-14 at that stage and hopefully I can draw some experience from there and hopefully it can help us over here.”
The Lions take on the Sharks on Saturday (kick-off 3pm) at Emirates Airline Park in the URC, and although Zeilinga’s last performance gives him the inside-lane to start, the competition for the No 10 jersey within the union will be fierce.
The Lions have no injury concerns, which means Tiaan Swanepoel is back in the mix, as is Jordan Hendrikse, while Eddie Fouche is also a consideration. There is also an exciting clutch of younger players at the union, including Baby Boks Vaughen Isaacs and James Mollentze, and James Tedder and Aidynn Cupido, who are all playing in the Currie Cup.
Zeilinga has the experience and temperament to keep all these players at bay; while also benefiting, regarding his form, from their aspirations. The Sharks encounter, therefore, represents another opportunity for Zeilinga – if selected – to solidify his status as the first choice flyhalf.
Coach Ivan van Rooyen selects his matchday 23 on Thursday.
Possible Lions starting XV v Sharks: 15 EW Viljoen, 14 Edwill van der Merwe, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Burger Odendaal (capt), 11 Rabz Maxwane, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Franke Horn, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Reinhard Nothnagel, 4 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Sti Sithole