JOHANNESBURG - If the Lions continue to lose players at the rate they have in the past year they’ll field an almost completely new-look side in next year’s Super Rugby competition. The exodus of players from the Lions is nothing short of a crisis.
Since this time last year, the confirmed number of senior regulars who have moved abroad, or elsewhere in South Africa, totals eight - that’s more than half a starting team - and it appears more are on their way out. It started around this time last year with Ruan Ackermann, the promising loose-forward, joining his dad, former coach Johan, at Gloucester in England, and he was followed by Faf de Klerk announcing he would continue his career with the Sale Sharks.
Later in 2017 Akker van der Merwe joined the Sharks in Durban, while flyhalf-cum-fullback Jaco van der Walt moved abroad. Flank Jaco Kriel then announced earlier this season he would be joining the Ackermanns at Gloucester, while Ruan Dreyer and Franco Mostert are also heading that way.
The latest big-name Lions star to choose a move abroad is Rohan Janse van Rensburg, who’ll join De Klerk at Sale Sharks, having already enjoyed a stint there in the off-season. Now it appears as if Andries Coetzee and Jacques van Rooyen are headed overseas, too, with Sale, Gloucester and Bath apparently all keen on their services.
Add the retirement of Warwick Tecklenburg and Julian Redelinghuys to the mix and the Lions at the start of the 2019 season will look vastly different to the team that kick-started the union’s revival in 2015/2016. Of course, coach Ackermann is also gone and so is his defence coach JP Ferreira.
With so much player movement happening at the Lions and the likes of Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe, Ross Cronje, Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan at the height of their marketability - because they are Springbok players - one can only wonder who’ll be next to make the call to go overseas.
The reality is once a player has played Test rugby their value increases substantially, so don’t be surprised if the trend continues at the Lions. To compound matters further, there will also surely be some concern in the offices at Ellis Park about the future of current head coach Swys de Bruin.
While he is unlikely to be heading overseas at this juncture, his involvement with the Boks in the June series - as an attack consultant - may eventually result in him joining Rassie Erasmus’ coaching team on a permanent basis. The thing is, if De Bruin is to continue in his role as attack specialist he can hardly fulfil both roles - with the Boks and Lions - without giving up something somewhere.
Franco Smith, when he was roped in by Allister Coetzee in 2017, said he would be able to work both with the Boks and the Cheetahs, but that didn’t last long - he eventually gave up his Cheetahs role. If Erasmus wants De Bruin, and the Lions man wants to be part of the Boks at the World Cup next year, a tough choice will have to be made - and you can almost be sure the Boks will win the fight.
These are changing times at the Lions, but the good news is there are a number of quality youngsters from the U-20 ranks pushing hard for a look-in at Super Rugby level next year. Here one thinks of the men who performed so strongly at the World Rugby U20 Championship recently, like Gianni Lombard, Tyrone Green, Wandisile Similane, Manny Rass, Jack Hart, Ruan Vermaak, PJ Steenkamp and Asenathi Ntlabakanye, among others.
But these men are already been sought by other unions in South Africa following their quality showings in the junior ranks, meaning the Lions have it all to do if they’re to continue being SA’s strongest outfit - a position they’ve held for a good few years now.