The Lions sleep tonight as their Super Rugby roar is no more
JOHANNESBURG – Ask any coach who’s been involved in the competition what the trick is to winning Super Rugby and they will tell you it’s having a core of experienced world-class players. The teams that have won the competition have generally had several high-class players in their ranks.
It is something the Lions don’t have at the moment and it is one of the reasons why the Joburg team are struggling in this year’s competition.
It is almost mind-boggling to think that just two seasons ago (in 2018) the Lions played in a third straight Super Rugby final. How they have fallen.
Before this weekend, the Lions have won only one of six matches. They have conceded 21 tries, the most at that stage of the competition in 10 years.
The Lions, just two years on from being this country’s top-ranked team, that played the most attacking and exciting rugby, and featured in three finals, are a shadow of what they once were.
But not only have the Lions lost several highly-rated and experienced players which is at the core of their battles, they are being led by a largely inexperienced coaching team.
Head coach Ivan van Rooyen, who was the team’s, and is still a specialist conditioning coach, has no top-flight coaching experience, except for his leading the Lions in two Currie Cup campaigns, against weak opposition.
Of his assistants Neil de Bruin has only a few years coaching behind him, Sean Erasmus was still coaching at school level a few years ago, while Julian Redelinghuys was forced to stop playing rugby four seasons ago because of a neck injury and fell into coaching.
Warren Whiteley, the inspirational captain, has taken up a coaching role because he can’t play due to his persistent injuries.
And Philip Lemmer was moved sideways to fill a new role, that of rucking and collisions coach, from his former post as forwards coach.
It’s a young coaching team that is learning on the job and that is not a good mix for a young team that is trying to find its identity.
Sadly, the Lions don’t have the class of players they once did and that’s no fault of the players or the coaching team. How the union allowed several big-name players to leave over the last few years and not replace them with similar quality players is disappointing and at the heart of the poor performances.
In 2016 when Johan Ackermann’s team played in their first Super Rugby final, the entire backline and five forwards would go on to play for the Springboks.
The backline in the final on August 6 in Wellington when the Lions lost 20-3 read like this: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnal Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Faf de Klerk. The five starting forwards who’d play for the Boks were: Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Redelinghuys and Malcolm Marx.
The other starting forwards were Warwick Tecklenburg, Andries Ferreira and Dylan Smith. On the bench sat two more Boks - Akker van der Merwe and Ross Cronjé.
It was a powerhouse team that became stronger and better in 2017, when the Lions hosted the final at Ellis Park.
It was the final the Lions should have, and could have, won.
A red card to Kwagga Smith - who’d also go on to play for the Boks - cost them dearly on the day as they lost 25-17 to the Crusaders.
Prop Ruan Dreyer became the new Bok in that side and in 2018, when they lost 37-18 to the Crusaders in Christchurch, in their third straight final, Aphiwe Dyantyi was the new big thing, while Marvin Orie emerged as a potential big player.
Things started to unravel post the 2017 season when, first, Ackermann decided he needed a new adventure and challenge and took up a job as head coach at Gloucester. He was followed by his son, the promising lock-cum-flank Ruan Ackermann, and then it was the turn of scrumhalf De Klerk, who joined Sale Sharks.
Soon after that powerful centre Janse van Rensburg also departed for England, and then also Jaco van der Walt, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen.
Bok first-choice tighthead prop Redelinghuys was forced to quit the game because of a neck injury, Tecklenburg retired to go farming and others then also sought a move abroad - among them Combrinck, Lourens Erasmus and Andries Ferreira.
More recently, hooker 'Angry Warthog' van der Merwe, Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Howard Mnisi, Nic Groom, Marco Janse van Vuuren, Stephan Lewies, Sylvian Mahuza, Corne Fourie, Madosh Tambwe have all moved away from Joburg.
Then, still others, like Robert Kruger and Robbie Coetzee have retired, while Dyantyi is facing a long ban for allegedly using banned substances.
The latest player to be let go by the Lions is flank Cyle Brink, who’s suffered setback after setback with injuries, but with his departure the Lions are again left with little real experience in the back-row positions.
Kwagga Smith, a member of the victorious World Cup winning squad last year, is currently playing in Japan, as is hooker Marx - both of whom are being pursued by the Lions bosses to rejoin the franchise.
And, of course, Whiteley is coaching which has left the team with few experienced leaders - something they had many of a few years ago.
The good news is flank Kriel, who led the team regularly during his time with the Lions before joining Gloucester, has returned to Joburg and will soon play again for his old team. Also back is another former Lions man, Willem Alberts, after eight years away playing for the Sharks and Stade Francais.
It remains to be seen whether the Lions' reaching out to Kriel (30 and injury-prone), Alberts (35) and veteran tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis (37) was a wise move or not.
Of course, in professional sport, players move on to better and more lucrative deals once they’ve established themselves and that’s what Ackermann and many of the Lions players have done in the last few years.
It’s understandable and expected; what is disappointing is the Lions never properly replaced those experienced star players.
There is plenty of exciting talent coming through the Lions ranks, many former SA U-20 stars, but it’s going to take time - if it happens at all - before they fully reach their potential and for a new-look Lions team to gel and find consistency.
One must also ask, how long will it be until some of those brightest talents seek a move away from a team that is struggling?
The Lions, sadly, after all the hard work and graft that went into them to get back to the very top in South African rugby and seriously challenge for Super Rugby honours, are seemingly back at square one where they were when they were relegated from Super Rugby in 2013.@jacq_west