JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s dominant Super Rugby team of the last three years are in uncharted territory. They have lost two matches in a row to South African teams - the Stormers away and the Bulls at home - and are all of a sudden having to deal with a situation they haven’t experienced in years.
On top of that, they are having to come to terms with not having their inspirational captain, Warren Whiteley, around, again, and several other key squad members, too.
While Lions coach Swys de Bruin and his players regularly speak about a leadership group, involving several senior players, the team looked out of sorts when Whiteley left the field before halftime against the Stormers in Cape Town 10 days ago. This was again the case this past weekend when they appeared to be “lost” in suffering a 30-12 defeat by the Bulls at Ellis Park - a venue where before last Saturday they last lost to a SA team - the Stormers - in February 2015.
Whiteley will only be back in the next five to seven weeks once he has recovered from his pectoral muscle injury, so for now the Lions will continue to be led by hooker Malcolm Marx. But it’s not only Whiteley’s absence that has rocked the Lions the last two weeks, but the departure of several players from Johannesburg in the last few years. And those moves are now hitting home.
At the end of the 2017 season not only did then head coach Johan Ackermann leave the Lions, but his son, promising loose forward Ruan, joined him at Gloucester, while scrumhalf Faf de Klerk left for Sale.
Then, in the middle of last season’s Super Rugby campaign, it was the turn of Rohan Janse van Rensburg to say goodbye to the Lions (he joined De Klerk at Sale) and so, too, hooker Akker van der Merwe, who joined the Sharks.
The Lions still managed to play in the Super Rugby final, having finished the league campaign as their conference winners, which ensured home quarter and semi-finals. But they came unstuck in their third final in a row, this time, against the Crusaders in Christchurch. However, compared to the runs to the final in 2016 and 2017 when the Lions won 11 and 14 of 15 league games, last year they won nine.
This season the Lions have also had to soldier on without key forwards like Ruan Dreyer (Gloucester), Jacques van Rooyen (Bath), Jaco Kriel (Gloucester), Franco Mostert (Gloucester), Andries Ferreira (Hurricanes) and Corne Fourie (Stormers) - all experienced campaigners who played key parts in turning the Lions’ fortunes around in the last six years.
Also, let’s not forget that prop Julian Redelinghuys and flank Warwick Tecklenburg - first-choice players three years ago - retired from rugby in 2017. Centre Howard Mnisi has also moved on and isn’t a part of the Lions squad anymore, while key forwards, hooker Robbie Coetzee, and lock Lourens Erasmus, have long-term injuries.
The Lions weren’t able to pick experienced scrumhalf Ross Cronje and flank Cyle Brink at the start of the season - first-choice players on any day - while this past weekend the team were without lock Marvin Orie, who in his first two games of the season - against the Jaguares and Stormers - was his team’s most successful tackler and ball-winner in the lineouts.
The Lions still have a number of experienced operators - particularly in the backs - and some hugely talented youngsters coming through the ranks, but one has got wonder what effect losing so many accomplished professionals in recent times is now having on the three-time Super Rugby runners-up?
The Lions next play the Jaguares at Ellis Park this Saturday.@jacq_west