Despite the coaching change, we still have a very strong group of players; the core is still there. Photo: Aubrey Kgakatsi/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG – After being led to back-to-back finals by Johan Ackermann a challenging Super Rugby season awaits the new Lions coaching team in 2018. Expectations are high for a repeat showing, but it is something that is certainly possible, according to franchise CEO Rudolf Straeuli.
Now leading the team in Ackermann’s absence is Swys de Bruin, the former assistant coach, and rookie assistants at this level Phillip Lemmer and Joey Mongalo.

The Lions are also minus a few key players from last season, when they dominated the competition and finished top of the points table only to lose at home to the Crusaders in the final, among them Faf de Klerk and Ruan Ackermann. Injuries have also laid low the likes of Jaco Kriel, Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck.

“We’ve still got a very strong group of players though; the core is still there,” said Straeuli this week when quizzed about his expectations this season.

“But what’s exciting is that there are a number of young players coming through the system who’ll be pushing for a chance later on. Just look at our juniors who’re already in the training squad and then there are all those promising players playing Varsity Cup rugby. Our system here at the Lions is really working for us.”

More pleasing for Straeuli is the fact the Lions have been able to reap the benefits of proper succession planning with regards to their Super Rugby coaching team.

“I like to think we’ve learned something from the New Zealanders, where the assistants eventually take over from the head coach, and there’s no break in continuity.

“Let’s be honest, Allister Coetzee should have taken over from Jake White in 2008, because they worked together for four years, and he know the system and the players it shouldn’t have happened all those years later,” said Straeuli about the now departed former Bok boss and his unsuccessful two year stint as national coach.

“Now with Swys we have a guy who worked with Ackers for five years, and he takes over this year it’s what the players wanted, what the fans wanted.

“This is not something that happens easily in South African rugby, but we’ve done it and we’ve also promoted young coaches from our juniors to the top. We hope it works for us, but it should. We all know how important continuity is in this game.”

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Straeuli said an exciting Super Rugby season lay ahead for the fans. “It’s a new format again with it being 15 teams, so hopefully we’ll have closer and more evenly contested matches. Everyone wants more intensity, an increase in interest, and greater viewership numbers.

“That’s probably my biggest challenge getting people to the venue, and after that I have to try keep my players and coaches, that’s another challenge of mine.”

Indeed. Several Lions players are out of contract at the end of the competition and while a number of big-name stars are believed to be considering big money contracts abroad, Straeuli assured fans the union were doing their best to keep the players.

“Of course it’s a challenge, individuals will always be targeted,” said the Lions boss. “There are many threats out there for our players, but that’s the way of business in modern sport.

“There are coaches out there (like Ackermann, at Gloucester, and former defence coach JP Ferreira, now at Munster) who know our players; it’s normal. But I also know the Lions guys are happy here and most want to stay. We’ve got a great culture here, so we’ll do everything we can to keep them for as long as possible.”

Straeuli said he didn’t want to look too far ahead this season but felt quietly confident of another good showing in Super Rugby. “I’m excited. We’re in a good place as a team,” he said. “We’re good enough to compete well again and win regularly, but it’s important to take things one match at a time. All I want really is for the guys to play nice, attractive rugby and for the fans to come in and support the guys. Emirates Airline Park is a good place to be on a weekend.”

The Lions kick-off their 2018 Super Rugby challenge next Saturday with a home match against the Sharks.

IOL Sport

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