Against a backdrop of serious off-field issues, the Lions’ thrilling win over the Chiefs on Friday is a remarkable feat, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
What is going on behind the scenes at the Lions?
It’s a question that came starkly into the spotlight on the eve of the Lions’ clash in Hamilton when it was revealed that head coach Swys de Bruin had left the squad and returned to South Africa.
The official response from the Lions was that his departure was for ‘personal reasons’, but SARugbymag.co.za understands there is far more to this story than meets the eye.
It’s believed that De Bruin has had to contend with outside influence and interference, which compromised and undermined his control over proceedings. It came to a breaking point this week, and ultimately led to his abrupt departure from the squad in the midst of an untenable situation.
To make matters worse, assistant coach Joe Mongalo had to appear in court, where he was convicted on an assault charge relating to an indecent incident that took place when the Lions were on tour in Australia last year.
It meant that Mongalo also found himself on the plane back to South Africa, where he will next be facing an internal disciplinary process at the Lions.
In addition to these disruptions there were two late changes to the Lions’ side, with both Malcolm Marx and Elton Jantjies elevated into the starting lineup despite having been initially named on the bench.
That double change did add some much-needed Springbok experience to the team, but considering that all the off-field distractions have followed back-to-back losses against the Sharks and Brumbies, the Lions were widely expected to suffer another heavy defeat against the Chiefs.
Instead, something entirely different took place.
Despite the absence of their defence coach, the Lions threw themselves into tackle after tackle with a passion and determination that has been all too rarely seen this season.
With the likes of Warren Whiteley, Cyle Brink and Kwagga Smith all revitalising the back row, the Lions suddenly rediscovered their swagger, and deservedly roared into a 20-0 lead at half-time.
Then, despite a late surge from the Chiefs as the Lions looked to be running out of steam, the visitors displayed the necessary guts and gumption to hold on for a famous 23-17 win. It’s a result that speaks volumes about the fighting spirit of a player group that so often celebrates the power of their ‘brotherhood’.
This was a team that had their backs against the wall, but in typical South African fashion found a way to defy the odds and battle their way to victory.
This was a team galvanised in the face of adversity. This was a team assuredly looking each other in the eye and saying: ‘Forget everything else, forget the “suits”, let’s do this for each other. Let’s prove a point.’
At half-time, assistant coach Philip Lemmer hinted at this when he said that the Lions were looking to serve ‘De Bruin’ in his absence, while stand-in coach Ivan van Rooyen suggested that the players had needed to find a way to pull together after a severely disruptive week.
It isn’t going to get any easier for the Lions, though. Next weekend they will face the indomitable Crusaders before returning to a franchise where there is sure to be a number of emergency meetings taking place behind closed doors.
One can only commend the players for finding a way to win on Friday, but some important answers are required around the off-field issues that have suddenly plunged South Africa’s perennial Vodacom Super Rugby pacesetters into a precarious ‘coach-less’ position.
Photo: Jeremy Ward/www.photosport.nz