JOHANNESBURG – Coach Swys de Bruin has hailed the fantastic team effort that has gone into the Lions reaching the Super Rugby semi-finals for a third year in a row.
The Lions will host the Waratahs at Ellis Park on Saturday with the winner going through to the final, for a meeting with either the Crusaders or Hurricanes, winners of the competition in 2017 and 2016, respectively.
Lions fans and the union will hope it is third time lucky as the team, under then coach Johan Ackermann, lost the 2016 final in Wellington, and last year also went down to the Crusaders at Ellis Park.
De Bruin, who took over from Ackermann, who left the franchise after last year’s competition to take up a position with Gloucester in England, paid tribute to his players and support staff after last Saturday’s quarter-final win against the Jaguares.
“I’m so pleased and proud (about getting into the semis again) because at one stage this season our whole spine was virtually out,” he said, referring to the long-term injuries suffered by hooker Malcolm Marx, No 8 Warren Whiteley and scrumhalf Ross Cronje. “Our captain (Whiteley) wasn’t there, Malcom (Marx) wasn’t there; (Jaco) Kriel was also out for the whole season. But, the other guys (came in and) put their hands up. We took flak and criticism, but we stuck to our guns,” he said.
Besides Ackermann leaving last season, defence coach JP Ferreira also left the union to take up a role in Ireland. It meant a new-look coaching staff taking over this year with among others Neil de Bruin, Phillip Lemmer and Joey Mongalo getting an opportunity under head coach De Bruin. It meant not much was expected of the Lions’ Class of 2018.
“I want to complement the coaching staff ... Joey, Neil, Philip ... they just work and work. Also, the senior players and how they got the brotherhood going again. I respect this bunch of players so much; they kept fighting and they’ve made the semis again,” said De Bruin.
But the Lions coach went further than just mentioning his assistant coaches, as he’s often done in the past. Earlier this season he named CEO Rudolf Straeuli as playing a massive role in the Lions staying ahead of the other local franchises, and also mentioned the man who cuts the grass at Johannesburg Stadium because, without him, the Lions wouldn’t be able to train.
“But there are others here, too, like our manager, Mustapha Boomgaard; the way he keeps the family happy and going; Ivan (Cash) van Rooyen, our trainer ... he is an unsung hero, he is the glue in the background; there is Jannie Putter (the team’s mental coach) ... there are so many guys playing a role; Balie (Swart) with the scrums.”
Of course much of the Lions’ success in recent years has been credited to influential captain Whiteley, who missed much of the season because of a knee injury. He also missed out on leading the team in the final last year because of an injury, but is back now for the playoffs and is set to play a major role in the remaining games.
De Bruin though, while acknowledging Whiteley’s influence, said no one was bigger than the team.
“Warren is the best captain in the world; he makes a hell of a difference ... but honestly, it’s not about Wozza (Whiteley) or myself or this or that,” said the humble De Bruin. “Gratitude is the big thing, to stay humble and work hard. We try to make sure no one gets bigger than the game ... that is paramount.”
Whiteley, too, added, he was just grateful to be fit and playing again, and having another chance at winning the Super Rugby title. “More than anything, I’m grateful (to be in this position). We’re hungry, we haven’t achieved anything yet; we’ve still got a massive game ahead of us this weekend.
“That’s all we’re focused on now. We’re not looking ahead (to a potential final) or to past (to the 29-0 win recorded against the Waratahs in April). We’re just going to enjoy this moment.”