JOHANNESBURG – Lions assistant coach Neil de Bruin has challenged his players to live up to their billing as South Africa's best Super Rugby outfit as the competition nears the business end.
The Lions lead the SA Conference ahead of the Jaguares and will host a quarter-final at Ellis Park next weekend if they beat the Bulls in their final league game at home on Saturday. While the Lions will start as favourites, their inconsistent performances will give the Bulls hope of an upset.
De Bruin, son of head coach Swys, said ahead of the clash the Lions now need to add action to all the talk about them being SA’s best hope of Super Rugby glory - again. The Lions made it to the final in 2016 and 2017, but lost to the Hurricanes and Crusaders in Wellington and Joburg respectively.
“Talk is cheap now ... we must now play,” said De Bruin, who handles the back division. “Hopefully we’ve got four games left ... and we’re going to have to play every game to the maximum if we’re going to make it.”
The Lions have had an up-and-down time of it in 2018 under the new-look coaching team, winning just eight of their 15 games. But with another chance in the playoffs looming, the Lions again have an outside shot at the title. De Bruin though wants to see the team take a step up.
“We want a complete performance (this weekend against the Bulls),” said De Bruin. “But what is a complete performance ... I’d like us to play with freedom and to limit our mistakes. If you make mistakes and concede penalties you get onto the back foot, so discipline will be crucial.
A classy performance would be good, playing to our strengths and keeping the ball. We’re not going to go into our shells and play conservatively. We’re rather going to stick with the same DNA that’s got us to the final in the last two years. We’ve hopefully learned from all those experiences and can one-up it this year.”
De Bruin said the fact the Lions can now again call on the experienced Warren Whiteley and Malcolm Marx after the duo spent a long time on the sidelines was a big boost ahead of this weekend’s Bulls game and the playoffs. “We’re not looking too far ahead; we just want to win the game in front of us,” he said.
“There’s good excitement in the group and nice energy, too, especially with the experienced guys back in it again. We’re hoping for another good performance, like the one we produced at Loftus earlier in the year; that was one of our best this season. If we can emulate that showing it will be good.”
The Lions dominated former coach John Mitchell’s Bulls in Pretoria in March, winning 49-35, but much has changed in the sides since that day and this week the Lions are coming off a bye, while the Bulls have some momentum behind them having beaten the Jaguares last Saturday.
“We feel pretty fresh after a week off, but they have the momentum,” said De Bruin. “They’ve also got some good experience in their team, so it should be a nice spectacle. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, but it’s a game we’re really looking forward to.”
The 32-year-old specialist skills coach said he’d enjoyed his first season in Super Rugby. “It’s been unbelievable; I’ve learnt so much,” he said. “What a privilege to work with such awesome players and coaching staff.”
He joked it was a “challenge” having his dad as his boss. “But, it’s been good ... there’s mutual respect and that makes a big difference.”