JOHANNESBURG – Will it be third time lucky for the Lions?
Expectations are again high that the Joburg-based team will perform well in this year’s Super Rugby competition, and so they should be, considering they played in the final in 2016 and 2017.
Defeats in Wellington to the Hurricanes and at home last year to the Crusaders left fans and the union disappointed, but the Lions get another chance this season with a squad that is now more experienced and with greater depth.
But inspirational former head coach Johan Ackermann is gone, now plying his trade at Gloucester in England – and along with him his very talented and versatile son Ruan.
Also, livewire scrumhalf Faf de Klerk is no longer in the red-and-white of the Lions, while former defence guru JP Ferreira has also left, to Munster in Ireland.
It remains a mightily strong Lions squad though, with 12 Springboks, a Springbok Sevens star and a bunch of promising youngsters eager to make their mark in Super Rugby.
But the question is, and has been ever since Ackermann left after last year’s agonising final loss to the Crusaders at a packed Ellis Park: Does De Bruin have the magic to see the Lions go one better than when they played under Ackermann?
“There’s always pressure in this job, and I can feel that, but I accept it gladly,” said De Bruin about the expectations on him and the team to follow on from the mighty heights achieved under Ackermann in the last two seasons.
“Don’t forget, I’m not new to this thing. I worked under Ackers for five years (as an assistant coach), I know the system and I know what worked and what didn’t.”
It’s one thing being in the background, so to speak, as De Bruin was previously, and quite another being in the front as the team leader, as he is now.
All the pressure and responsibility is on the head coach’s shoulders, and his assistants will look to him to guide them and lead the way.
And with Ferreira no longer around, it’s a young and untried team at this level.
De Bruin’s two right-hand men are Joey Mongalo and Philip Lemmer, both young coaches who achieved plenty at junior level, but this will be their first step into the big time.
Mongalo, who worked as the Lions’ breakdown and skills coach in the Currie Cup last year, will be responsible for breakdown play and the backline in Super Rugby.
In 2016 Mongalo was the defence coach for the Junior Springboks, and as head coach of the Lions’ Under-19 team in 2016 and 2017, his team won the national junior championship in those years.
His fellow Under-19 national title-winning coach Lemmer was in charge of the Lions’ junior forwards and also the University of Johannesburg’s forwards in the Varsity Cup in the last two years.
He effectively takes over from Ackermann, who was in charge of the Lions pack during his time in Joburg.
Look who is back in the Lions Den, hard at work preparing for the 2018 Vodacom Super Rugby season with the rest of the Emirates Lions!
Welcome back Elton Jantjies, Ruan Combrinck, Warren Whiteley and Lionel Mapoe. Good to see you in the red and white!#LetsUnite #TheLionsWay pic.twitter.com/vNMeJdIz1D
Kicking and skills will be handled by Neil de Bruin, also a first-time experience for him at Super Rugby level, while long-serving Ivan van Rooyen will continue in his role as strength and conditioning coach.
“Joey and Philip helped make the Lions Under-19s the dominant force in South African rugby. They have served their dues, done brilliantly, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t do well in Super Rugby as well,” said De Bruin.
“I’m so excited to be working with these guys. It’s going to be a great challenge for all of us.
“We’re not going to change much from what we’ve done over the last few years, just tweak a few things here and there, and hopefully just do things better than we did them in the past.
“It’s a long competition, so I’m not going to even think about playoffs and where we’d like to finish, or what we want to achieve. We’ll take it one week at a time and keep it as simple as possible.”
The Lions open their challenge with a clash against the Sharks at Ellis Park on February 17.