JOHANNESBURG – Win or lose in Christchurch today, the Lions have already made history by becoming the first South African team to play in three consecutive Super Rugby finals.
And there’s no reason why they can’t push on and join the mighty Crusaders in making it four finals in a row next year.
Ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby final in Christchurch this morning (9.35am SA time), the immediate future of the Lions looks far more encouraging than it did a few months ago, when just about every Springbok in the team was rumoured to be on their way out of the union at the end of this year’s competition.
But it now seems the three-time finalists will only lose a handful of players to Europe-based clubs, meaning they will be as strong next season as they were this year, when they also faced several challenges following the successful 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Only eight-time champions the Crusaders – who’ve done it twice, once doing it four times in a row – and title-winning teams of the Brumbies and Blues, have appeared in three straight finals.
The Lions reached today’s final even though they had to do without former inspirational coach Johan Ackermann, defence guru JP Ferreira – both of whom left for Europe after last year’s defeat at Ellis Park – and several former key players like Faf de Klerk and Ruan Ackermann, who also left after last year’s campaign, and Jaco Kriel, who missed the whole season because of injury.
Also, the Lions had a new-look coaching team in place this year, with rookies Philip Lemmer, Joey Mongalo and Neil de Bruin new to Super Rugby.
They also lost captain Warren Whiteley, Malcolm Marx and Ross Cronjé to injuries during the season, while Courtnall Skosan only returned to action three weeks ago.
Lock Andries Ferreira and flank Cyle Brink have also nursed injuries on and off all season.
“We’ve had our trials and tribulations this season,” said De Bruin. “There have been so many injuries, but hats off to the guys who’ve stood in for these men.”
Indeed, the depth at the Lions is as strong as it’s ever been; it’s what helped them get to the final this year, and it’s what will help them maintain their dominance of South African rugby next season.
The good news is that while De Bruin, who consulted for the Springboks for the June Tests and may eventually end up with the national team on a more permanent basis, and for the World Cup late next year, will again take charge of the Lions in Super Rugby next season.
And his management team will be the same as it was this year.
While the likes of Kriel, Franco Mostert, Ruan Dreyer and Rohan Janse van Rensburg have been lost to the Lions – all four of them have taken up deals in the UK – several key Lions figures will again wear the red and white next year.
Whiteley and Marx will definitely play Super Rugby next year, and so will other Bok players Marvin Orie, Kwagga Smith, Ross Cronjé, Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Skosan.
The likes of Ferreira, Harold Vorster, Howard Mnisi, Madosh Tambwe, Robbie Coetzee, Marnus Schoeman, Lourens Erasmus, Hacjivah Dayimani and Jacques van Rooyen also look set to be back next year.
There is only still some doubt about the futures of Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe and Cyle Brink, but this week, the Springbok No 10 indicated today’s final in Christchurch would not be his last game in Lions colours.
Season Try Record: Can George Bridge match or overtake Ben Lam as all-time leading try scorer?
2018 Ben Lam 16, George Bridge 15, Taqele Naiyaravoro @NSWWaratahs 15
2017 Ngani Laumape @Hurricanesrugby 15
2005 Rico Gear @crusadersrugby 15
1997 Joe Roff @BrumbiesRugby 15#CRUvLIO pic.twitter.com/h8WRcFPqU4
The good news for the Joburg outfit is that they have a host of seriously talented junior players like scrumhalf Brad Thain, centres Wandesile Simelane and Manny Rass, wing Tyrone Green and flyhalf/fullback Gianni Lombard coming through the ranks.
“Our continuity has been the biggest thing for us over the last couple of years,” said Whiteley about his team’s journey from missing out on the Super Rugby competition in 2013 to playing in three finals.
“It’s unheard of in South Africa to keep a team together for so long. It’s indicative of the culture we have here at the Lions; everyone wants to be part of this group, this brotherhood.”
The Lions might be without some key men next year, but it seems the brotherhood will continue to thrive under the leadership of De Bruin and Whiteley.
And why shouldn’t there be dreams of making it four finals in a row?