Not too many people gave the Lions a chance of going all the way to the Super Rugby final this year. The pre-season predictions all-round were not very favourable.
Yet, five months on and they are on the brink of playing in their third consecutive final. Win against the Waratahs at Ellis Park today and the Lions will again have proved all the doubters wrong.
And while coach Swys de Bruin isn’t a man to brag and say, “I told you so”, a final appearance will be extremely satisfying for the man many believed wouldn’t be able to do what former Lions boss Johan Ackermann did – and that’s to make the final.
De Bruin admitted this week the highlight of the 2018 season was the team winning their conference – for the third time – and proving the Lions are still the best team in South Africa.
“Obviously things will change if we manage to go all the way and finally win this competition, but right now the biggest highlight for me is the fact we’ve come through a tough season, won the conference and are again in the semi-finals,” said De Bruin, who took charge of the team after Ackermann left for a job with Gloucester in England after last year’s final loss to the Crusaders.
“We also scored the joint most tries with the Crusaders, so that is very satisfying.
“Back in February all the so-called pundits were raving about the prospects of the Bulls, who they installed as the favourites to win the SA Conference. They spoke about the Sharks ... and we were written off. And here we are today.”
Looking back at the last few months, De Bruin said he knew it was going to be a challenging campaign.
Having to deal with the loss of Ackermann and also defence coach JP Ferreira, who also left for overseas, was a big test. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy ... you don’t just replace guys who’ve worked for so long, so successfully, with players.
“Besides myself and Ivan van Rooyen, the conditioning coach, it became a completely new coaching team with Phillip Lemmer, Joey Mongalo and Neil de Bruin coming in.
“I needed guys I could trust 100 percent. That’s why I went with them ... I knew they were young guys who’d only previously worked with the juniors, but I knew them.
“They were thrown in at the deep end and look how they’ve swum. They’ve been incredible.”
The other major challenge was several senior players being offered contracts to move abroad - something he knew would happen once Ackermann left for Gloucester, along with his son Ruan.
Shortly thereafter, Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk departed and the door to earning pounds and euros was knocked down. “I knew some guys were coming to the end of their contracts, some had played a bit overseas and the offers would come,” admitted De Bruin.
“It happened, it’s the reality of professional sport ... and now we’ve lost Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Dreyer, Franco Mostert, and maybe some others.
“The good news, though, is that throughout the season we’ve had strong leaders, strong characters who’ve carried us through, amid all the rumours and negotiations (of players leaving and signing with other teams).”
De Bruin was also forced into having to select a new team leader following the unavailability of the injured Jaco Kriel and Warren Whiteley, who missed the biggest part of the campaign.
“Of course that was another big challenge for me. Ross Cronje was also injured at one stage and Malcolm Marx, too ... I turned to Franco Mostert, threw him in at the deep end.
“He couldn’t quite believe it when I called him in to my office and said he had to take this team forward. He thought I was mad. But he was the right guy, and I think he did unbelievably well.”
Of course there were challenges on the field, too, and De Bruin makes no bones about the fact he was bitterly disappointed with the losses suffered against the Blues and Reds.
“We were 28-6 up against the Blues, at home. We haven’t lost from that position in years and we were in total control. It was a massive blow to me and the players, definitely a low point in the season.
“And then, losing to the Reds in Australia, the week after we’d beaten the Waratahs 29-0, was also very disappointing.”
De Bruin’s team, though, qualified for the play-offs with nine wins from their 16 matches - and they’ve got a chance of playing in another final.
“Having lost Ackers and JP, and new guys coming in, if you consider all the injuries we’ve had to deal with, I think we’ve done okay. I’d rank it as a good campaign, a campaign where our character was tested.
“We’re blessed to again be in this position (today). I’m satisfied, but the job is not done. I want to go to the final and win it. If it were to happen it'd be a greater achievement than what we did in the two previous years and that would be very satisfying.”@jacq_west