JOHANNESBURG – It was a little over a year ago that it was confirmed that Johan Ackermann - the man widely credited for hauling the Lions out of the Super Rugby doldrums - would join Gloucester in England.
A month later news broke that Faf de Klerk was also leaving, for Sale, and just before the 2017 Super Rugby season wrapped up it was announced that Ruan Ackermann would join his dad at Gloucester.
Those are all three big names who helped turn the Lions from chumps into champs. And while the Joburg team have seemingly survived their departure, news this week that Jaco Kriel is also on his way out - to Gloucester to join the Ackermanns - makes one wonder how many more of the Lions’ “golden group” will be moving on at the end of the current Super Rugby campaign, or at the end of the year.
Prop Julian Redelinghuys also called it quits at the Lions in the last year, but that was because of a career-ending neck injury, while other stalwarts of recent times like Jaco van der Walt and Akker van der Merwe also moved on.
And while Swys de Bruin has performed well so far in his first season in charge of the Lions, and helped bring through several young stars this year, the question now is whether the days of the players who helped make the Lions South Africa’s best team are coming to an end?
At this stage all one can do is speculate who, besides Kriel, will not be in the red and white next season.
Springbok captain Warren Whiteley is almost certain to still be involved with the Lions next year having apparently been offered a national contract by new Bok boss Rassie Erasmus, which will keep him in the country until at least after the World Cup at the end of next year, while hooker Malcolm Marx is also contracted to SA Rugby in a joint deal with the Lions, until 2020.
But what of centres Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe - the former a man who’s already played for Sale on a short term basis during the off-season, the latter a man who also features for a club in Japan from November to February each year.
Stalwarts like Ruan Dreyer and Franco Mostert will certainly be on the shopping lists of several overseas clubs, and possibly Elton Jantjies, too, who also has a contract with a Japanese club.
What the future holds for others like Ruan Combrinck, Andries Coetzee and Ross Cronje is uncertain; much no doubt depending on whether they feature for the Springboks between now and the World Cup. But these are all men who’re in the prime of their careers and who’ve played for the Boks and who could earn big pay cheques abroad.
The Lions though have contracted well in recent times, realising Super Rugby stars and men who’ve donned the green and gold will be targeted by the wealthy European clubs, and the quality of the men coming through the juniors means Lions rugby could still be very healthy for many years to come.
Besides young guns who are shining in Super Rugby already like Madosh Tambwe, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Hacjivah Dayimani and Marco Janse van Vuren, several juniors have been a class above the rest in South Africa and will represent the country at the Junior World Cup in France next month.
No fewer than 12 players out of the squad of 28 are Lions men, namely Gianni Lombard (fullback), Tyrone Green (wing), Manuel Rass (centre), Wandisile Simelane (centre), Jack Hart (scrumhalf), PJ Steenkamp (loose forward), Dian Schoonees (loose forward), Ruan Vermaak (lock), Cohen Kiewit (prop), Tiaan van der Merwe (prop), Asenathi Ntlabakanye (prop) and Nathan McBeth (prop).
So while the future of some players who have become household names - and Lions and Bok stalwarts - is uncertain, new players are stepping forward and showing they are ready to ensure the Lions remain South Africa’s leading team.