JOHANNESBURG - Dark were the days, the years of bewilderment, the seasons of discontent, of suffering, and distress. Long before that, the fair-weather supporters, the capricious man in the street, had abandoned the team, leaving only the hardcore, the would-be ultras to carry the torch.
It was the worst of times and in short, 25 years of Super Rugby was often not kind to the Lions or their fans.
And still The Pride believed.
In all, including their stint as the Cats, the Lions only won 37% of their matches up until the end of the 2019 season.
The last five seasons in the tournament were arguably the team’s most successful – they won 62% of their matches and only the Laurie Mains era of 2000-01 was marginally more successful.
The legacy of the Lions in Super Rugby was therefore one of disappointment and heartache, of false dawns and unfulfilled potential, punctuated by the odd triumph that lifted the general malaise.
There were highs, of course – the recent seasons managed by Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin – but mostly the Lions were complacent by association, suffering in one season, for example, 13 loses and losing all their games in 2010.
And yet The Pride believed.
For a team of the Lions’ standing, prestige and tradition, many will look back at Super Rugby and thank the rugby gods that it is over.
And yet the story of the Lions is one of hope, of self-reflection come tangible, of working together and finding a long missing gees.
This was especially true during the Ackerman and De Bruin years, who built their winning team on the structures of John Mitchell before, and who were led by Lions legend Warren Whiteley.
The last five years were effulgent, creating many memories of brilliant play, astounding tries, and magnificent victories.
Built on the back of team spirit and togetherness, the Lions achieved something special in all departments, playing in three consecutive finals and despite not ever lifting the most coveted of international franchise rugby trophies, were arguably the best-of-the-best … they certainly were the SA team to watch during that period.
There was belief.
There is one memory, one match that I particularly reminisce about. It was during the darkest hours of the Lions foray in Super Rugby.
It was in 2007. The Lions were coached then by Eugene Eloff and captained by Springbok Andre Pretorius.
The Lions were hosting the defending champion Crusaders and no one gave the Joburgers any chance of beating the unstoppable Kiwi team. I recall the weather was unpalatable – rain had swept across the city – equalising the match-ups.
The Lions defended like Trojans on that day, driving the Crusaders back, defending their line fiercely, locking out the most successful
Super Rugby team ever. In the end Louis Strydom knocked over three penalties, while the Lions limiting the Crusaders to two – it was a famous 9-6 victory, and in that moment there was hope and joy.
Now as we build to a European future, The Pride – the self-styled title of the Lions fans – have reason to believe in their team.