Ivan van Rooyen to keep the faith in Lions’ youngsters
JOHANNESBURG – Ivan van Rooyen won't cash in his chips in an effort to buy players for the upcoming season, the Lions head coach more than confident in his current squad and the exciting players the union is developing within its youth structures.
While the other franchises – the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers – have all gone to market with various degrees of aggression to bolster their squads, the Lions have been content to turn to their youth players in an effort to get them up to speed with the rigours of senior professional rugby.
That strategy was employed against the victory over the Pumas last weekend, and will once again be implemented against the Eastern Province on Wednesday in their second preparation match. There was also a taste of it during the recently concluded Currie Cup.
And this is where, as head coach Van Rooyen explained, the Lions will reap the rewards in the near future as they prepare for the Rainbow Cup in April and beyond.
All that is required now is ensuring that this younger generation of Lions get the opportunity to develop and refine their talents and skills in the coming weeks, with the hope that if and when called upon, they will be able to do the business for the Joburg-based side.
Van Rooyen has no doubts about that.
"I can almost pick a young team that can really, really express themselves," said Van Rooyen, speaking to Independent Media this past week. "On the right day, in the right conditions, they can really do something special."
The coach also believes that there are more than just a handful of Lions youth players that have a stellar and long-lived career in front of them, and although he was loath to single out any one particular player, the man they call Cash was more than happy to gush over the union's younger players collectively.
Said the coach: "If you look at the team selection for the Pumas, Nathan McBeth, even though it feels like he has been with the seniors for ages, I think he is only 22, or 23.
"Banele Mthenjane," Van Rooyen continued, "who was on the bench against the Pumas, is turning 21, or he is 21. Dameon Venter is 21. Morne Brandon is 21. PJ Botha is only something like 22 or 23 … And then you go to the locks, Emmanuel Tshituka is 21, Sibusiso Sengweni is 21, Mark Snyman is 21, Travis Gordon is almost back at full training and he is 21.
"Luke Rossouw, James Mollentze, Prince Nkabinde, they are all 21-years-old. Ngia Selengbe, the guy who came on at the wing against the Pumas, is only 20-years-old – he is a future star. So, I can literally name a full team, and that is very exciting.
"I almost want to change the term Under-20 to Under-23," Van Rooyen said. "I really think that we can choose an Under-23 team that is unbelievable and with enough senior experience and just enough X-factor, can change games."
At the beginning of the pre-season a fortnight ago, Van Rooyen was somewhat coy when asked about possible transfers, but also then reiterated his belief that there were more than enough players to cover all the team's bases.
This past week, the 38-year-old coach was more than willing to clarify and restate his belief that the Lions did not need to look beyond their own borders for players brisling with talent.
"To be honest," he said, "I don't think we are the kind of union that, even historically, has bought 10 superstars and then built a team around that. We are a bit more focussed on homegrown talent, and our junior systems developing players.
"So, I don't think that is going to change in the future. We are not going to go out and buy superstars," he concluded.