The three-time runners-up in the competition from 2016-2018 have dominated the local scene in recent years, but with the experienced Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits joining the Pretoria-based outfit, and a new-look coaching team taking charge, the Bulls could be the team to keep an eye on.
De Bruin certainly thinks so.
“Just like last year (when I took charge following the departure of Johan Ackermann and some players) no one is again giving us a chance,” said De Bruin about his team’s prospects in the competition.
Recent departures include Jaco van der Walt, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Dreyer, Jacques van Rooyen, Franco Mostert and Jaco Kriel, to go with Faf de Klerk and Ruan Ackermann, who left at the end of the 2017 season.
“And when you look at the Bulls and who they’ve brought in, it’s massive,” said De Bruin.
“They’ve got a new coaching team and their director of rugby (Alan Zondagh) is a very experienced rugby man. Duane (Vermeulen) has come in and their spine (hooker, No 5 lock, scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback) is very strong... they’ve got lots of Springbok players and look very good.”
De Bruin added the Sharks and Stormers would also pose a big threat.
“The Sharks have momentum from the Currie Cup and the Stormers have, like, 11 Boks in their pack alone, with a guy like Sikhumbuzo Notshe coming off the bench. It’s going to be a big fight between the SA teams this year.”
The Lions are well into their preparations for the start of the competition in a month’s time, with new recruits like lock Stephan Lewies, props Frans van Wyk and Carlo Sadie and hooker Jan-Henning Campher now settled in the squad.
“Things are going well, better now that the guys who were in Japan are back with us,” said De Bruin.
“There’s massive excitement in the group, but that will be the case at every franchise. We’re looking forward to seeing what the new guys are going to do, but also the youngsters who’ve come through our junior ranks and are now on the verge of playing Super Rugby; in our squad of 36, 18 have yet to play in the competition.”
While the Lions ticked many boxes last year - like scoring a ton of tries - De Bruin believes there is still plenty of work to be done, like improving their at-times shaky defence.
“We know the first thing that’s going to be crucial this year is managing the senior players better, and that means resting players more often, and using the whole squad (especially in this World Cup year).
“And then, we need to up our defence. We’ll always be a team that scores tries, and we’re not going to change much in our attacking game, but Joey (Mongalo, the defence coach) is working hard to improve the defence,” said De Bruin.
The Lions’ first warm-up will be on Saturday against the Bulls at Loftus and that will be followed by a match against the Sharks in Cape Town on February 3.@jacq_west