Ivan van Rooyen nears Currie Cup pot of gold
JOHANNESBURG - Reaching the semi-finals is cool and all, but let us not forget the bigger picture that is beyond the Carling Currie Cup.
When the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions made this season's play-offs, they vindicated SA Rugby's decision last year to declare those franchises the country's representatives in the upcoming Rainbow Cup and Pro Rugby League. Sure, it was merciless on the Free State Cheetahs, and perhaps even unfair, but there can be no argument now that the correct decision was reached.
In this regard, this season has been a warm-up for those teams’ European expedition from April and the Lions are no exception.
Whether or not they progress past their semi-final against the
Bulls next weekend, coach Ivan van Rooyen will have a pretty solid idea of who his squad is, what they are capable of, and whom is still required to bolster it for a new challenge against teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
There can be little doubt that tactically the 38-year-old coach has grown in leaps and bounds, and that he has begun to fully develop and enforce his playing style and gameplan on the Johannesburgbased team. In recent weeks there has been a noticeable step away, when so required, from the hallmark running rugby that defined the team for close to a decade. And it has paid dividends, the Lions winning five of their six games during the Currie Cup. A core of veteran players is now developing at the Lions, and while it has been a boon for the team, it is not without its own concerns.
Jannie du Plessis (38), Willem Alberts (36) are in the twilight of their careers, and finding adequate replacements to call upon if the need arises in the near future will be an important step to solidifying the ever-growing presence of the Lions scrum.
So too, must there be a inkling of apprehension surrounding the No 10 spot.
Captain Elton Jantjies is a stalwart of the team, a legend at the union and amongst his supporters, and he is effervescent in his performances every matchday. But with Gianni Lombard on the side-lines for another six months, the depth at flyhalf is perilous.
An injury to the 30-year-old would not be disastrous for the team, there are youngsters and squad members who could fill in for him - Tiaan Swanepoel and Ross Cronje spring to mind - but few players posses the experience and command of a fully fit and in-form Jantjies.
Van Rooyen has done a stellar job of strengthening his team, and taking the long-view, such as playing Wilhelm van der Sluys, whose preferred position is at lock, at flank, while also introducing new blood into the squad.
He now has a gaggle of props that can play on both sides of the scrum, good hookers to service the line-outs, an intimidating pool of locks, and a enviable mix of young Turks and masters amongst his loosies.
He sports an exciting backline of old heads and youngsters that perhaps needs a bit more time to grow in stature and understanding, and specifically has four excellent and versatile scrumhalves in Cronje, the injured Dillon Smit, Morne van den Berg and Andre Warner.
In hefty-footed Schoeman he has found a diamond in the rough, while his centres - Burger Odendaal and Dan Kriel - posses power, while Wandisile Simelane the X-factor.
As he continues to grow, his team will as well. All that is now required is to identify the few deficiencies in his team and shore them up.
This Currie Cup has shown the team is on the right path, now for the future to be successful, the right decisions need to be made.