Maybe it’s time for frustrating Lions to rethink their approach

Under coach Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions have finished 12th, and now in successive years, ninth in the United Rugby Championship. Photo: BackpagePix

Under coach Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions have finished 12th, and now in successive years, ninth in the United Rugby Championship. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Jun 6, 2024


Comment by Morgan Bolton

I feel cheated.

The results came in and my choice was on the losing side … again.

After an intense 24-hour period, when I perused the final outcome, it only led to disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness. They landed on 49, when 51 would have seen them through.

It has been a tough five years, but there was genuine hope in 2024 that there would be change – a tangible step forward in the right direction.

Instead, while there was slight improvement when looking at the tally, it will be another year of dejected failure.

When it comes down to it, the manner in which they ran their campaign, they just had too many irregularities, as they flip-flopped from one extreme to another.

When it mattered most, they simply could not land the coup de grace.

Their voices will be silent now as they watch on from the sidelines, the remaining parties assembled and fighting it out to reign supreme after a tough slog through the trenches.

It’s true: the Lions did themselves no favours in the United Rugby Championship this past season.

They came agonisingly close to making the play-offs, losing out only due to the Ospreys having won more games during the regular season.

Once again, Lions fans will stand with their hands on hips, wondering what went wrong, and having to support the Bulls to the north and perennial over-achievers of South African rugby, the Stormers, in a coalition built out of national interest.

The Lions clearly declared their objectives at the start of the campaign: a top-eight finish and Champions Cup qualification.

After years of building a youthful and brash bunch of players into seasoned professionals, they had the personnel to do so.

The coaches evangelised this development during the pre-season, and the players bought into the narrative throughout.

There were no off-field distractions either, while they sacrificed the EPCR Challenge Cup to focus on that goal.

Pinpointing why it ended this way, is Daedalian.

One week they would play some truly inspired and intelligent rugby, beautiful to watch and exciting to witness.

The next, it would be a vacuous proceeding that had all and sundry – team and supporters alike – questioning reality.

The big byword associated with the Doornfontein-based side this season would be inconsistency.

— Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) June 5, 2024

Looking at their results across the board, it is easy to see why. It reads like binary: LLLWL WWWWW LLLLW WLLWL WWL, or in simpler terms: played 23, won 11, lost the rest.

Too often they produced magnificent displays – the Bulls at Loftus, Connacht away, and Leinster at home attest to this – only for the follow-up matches against the Bulls in Johannesburg, Ospreys in Swansea, and Munster to force a reset in momentum.

The Lions continue to be frustratingly close to something, but what that is remains undefined.

Under coach Ivan van Rooyen – a solid, positive character that hides his very clear passion for the team behind guarded stoicism – they have finished 12th, and now in successive years, ninth.

— Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial_RSA) June 2, 2024

For the past three seasons they have threatened to achieve a modicum of success, only to make the same mistakes retreaded and rehearsed, and supposedly learnt from.

Of all the franchises, the Lions do the most with what they have – and that is commendable, as is their youth structure – but it might be time to relook at what they are working with and rethink the approach.

Perhaps this squad has reached its glass ceiling, and new ideas and thoughts are required.

The Lions can ill-afford to remain a minority stakeholder in a dynamic rugby landscape. They have the structures and player resources, but their time to unlock it is running out … again.