JOHANNESBURG – The three-time runners-up from 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Lions, have failed to reach the Super Rugby quarter-finals this year.
They finished ninth overall and fourth in the South African conference, having won just eight of their 16 regular season games.
Here we take a look at, among other things, the highlights, lowlights, heroes and villains of the Lions’ 2019 campaign.
There was sadly not too much to get excited about over the last four months. The fact that the Lions beat the SA conference winners, the Jaguares, home and away, can certainly be deemed a highlight; especially their first ever win registered in Buenos Aires, in round one.
The away win in Hamilton against the Chiefs, in a week when coach Swys de Bruin was struck down by stress and returned home, was also encouraging.
Personnel-wise, the emergence of several young stars, like Tyrone Green, Gianni Lombard, Vincent Tshituka, Hacjivah Dayimani and Carlu Sadie is reason to be optimistic about the future.
The fact that the Lions won only eight matches was disappointing, and so, too, the fact they ranked only eighth for number of tries scored (when they were one of the leading teams between 2016 and 2018) and conceded more than they scored (64 to 53).
For a team that won the SA conference in the three years they played in the final to drop to ninth place this season is proof the Lions have fallen hard in 12 months.
It didn’t help that they suffered a number of big injury setbacks, most notably to captain Warren Whiteley, who started just four of his team’s 16 games.
We don't have any words and we know you don't want to hear them.— Emirates Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) June 15, 2019
We understand your anger, your frustration, your sadness. Everything you're feeling - we feel it too.
This is not the ending we imagined and certainly not the one we wanted. Thank you for being there the entire way pic.twitter.com/5AVgcMs3iP
The big star for the Lions over the course of the season was loose forward Kwagga Smith, who showed the kind of form that made him a household name in 2017. The Lions just weren’t the same team when he didn’t play.
Hooker Malcolm Marx also stood up, perhaps unexpectedly, to lead the side in Whiteley’s absence, and did a good job under trying conditions for the biggest part of the campaign.
Unheralded and little-known Sadie also emerged as a hero after coming in as a loan player from the Stormers and becoming a rock at tighthead. He has a bright future ahead.
Experienced and key player Elton Jantjies getting himself suspended for a breach of team protocol following an incident (or incidents) after (or during) the game against the Sharks in Durban was not the brightest thing the No 10 could have done, and it seemingly did have some sort of impact on the team.
Also, it was disappointing to hear various versions as to the reasons why the Lions team changed from the one that was named and then ran out to face the Chiefs in Hamilton. It seems the full story to what happened hasn’t been heard.
Still in Hamilton, De Bruin leaving the team on the eve of the Chiefs match because he had allegedly suffered a breakdown due to stress shocked Lions and SA rugby fans.
Also, news that defence coach Joey Mongalo had been convicted and sentenced for indecent assault by a Sydney court for an incident that happened in a hotel while the Lions were on tour last year, was met with disbelief.
He, too, left the team for a while to attend to personal matters and faced an internal disciplinary hearing.
The loss of several big-name stars in the last three years hit the team hard in 2019. The coaching team were simply not able to plug the holes with experienced, seasoned campaigners, and the Lions will again lose some players to Europe and Japan for next year’s competition.
Also, they are going to have to tighten up defensively in 2020 if they want to have say, but there is some good news, too.
The youngsters coming through the system – many of whom got a taste of Super Rugby this year – will be stronger, wiser and more experienced next year, which bodes well for the future of the team.@jacq_west