After a sobering month for South African rugby, the Lions have once again delivered a feel-good factor that is worth celebrating wholeheartedly, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In June, the Springboks suffered a first-ever defeat to Ireland in South Africa, and while they battled back to secure a 2-1 series win, there was hardly cause for rave reviews over the early portents that were dished up at the start of the Allister Coetzee era.
Around the same time the SA A side lost 2-0 to the visiting England Saxons, while the Junior Springboks bowed out at the semi-final stage of the World Rugby U20 Championship, and then suffered a 49-19 thrashing at the hands of Argentina in the bronze-medal match.
So back to Super Rugby we came with a pall of doom and gloom hanging over a rugby public that seemed to all simultaneously be questioning how far South African rugby was regressing.
Then came the Lions at Ellis Park. During a first-half blitz against the Sharks on Saturday, they again sent out another wonderful reminder of what can be achieved by a team that has stuck together and retained a steadfast belief in what they are doing.
In the buildup to Saturday’s clash, Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold was forthright in highlighting how highly he regarded the Lions. He said they expected to face their sternest test of the season, even considering that the Durban-based side have played the top Kiwi sides this season.
Gold said at a time when everyone continues to wax lyrical about New Zealand rugby and their brand of play, it was encouraging to see the Lions also setting a benchmark of their own. How right he was.
And again after Saturday’s match, which saw the hosts clinch a dominant 37-10 win, the Sharks boss was lavish in his praise of the Lions. This wasn’t an opposition coach paying lip service after a heavy defeat, but rather an honest acknowledgement of how the Lions have evolved into a side that is now simply in a class of their own.
‘The Lions story is so similar to that of the Bulls under Heyneke [Meyer in the 2000s]. They made a slow start and played under difficult conditions in the beginning, but the people in the group were backed to deliver, and then this is what you can grow to.’
If one recalls, for three successive seasons between 2000 and 2002, the Bulls finished in the bottom two of the Super Rugby log, while winning just three games.
However, they gradually began to make progress and eventually a side filled with stars such as Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez clinched the 2007 Super Rugby trophy. By the end of 2010, they had two more titles to their name.
‘This [the Lions story] is one of the most astonishing things,’ Gold commented. ‘This is how great sports teams are formed. This is a group of players and coaches who have been together a long time. They have had some very tough times, but they’ve stuck together, like the Bulls did, and they’ve grown into a great team.
‘They say in sport that if you could bottle confidence you’d make a lot of money. This is a great team that has that confidence, they play a good brand of rugby and are well coached. It’s interesting that we’re effectively using Kiwi teams as a reference in preparation for playing against one of our own. I think the Lions can go all the way.’
Indeed, we’ve arrived at a stage where the Lions can be unequivocally regarded as genuine Super Rugby title contenders.
Like Gold, Nick Mallett was also spot on with his post-match comments when he reiterated that the Lions were playing a brand of simply ‘irresistible rugby’.
The Lions are currently riding a wave of confidence that is swelling into a tsunami, and they are now in a strong position to finish the season top of the entire Super Rugby pile, which would earn them the rights to secure a home semi-final and final.
Yet one of the biggest challenges for the Lions will be to now ensure that they are mentally prepared for playoff rugby, because there are still a number of players who would not have experienced the sort of pressure that will come from a Super Rugby knockout clash.
Interestingly though, in recent conversations with Lions and now Springbok star Ruan Combrinck, it’s been insightful to hear of how the Johannesburg-based side has made use of sports psychologists and mental coaches over the last couple of years.
Combrinck said this has been something that’s aided him greatly in making an important mindset shift over the last few seasons, and it again underlines how the Lions have dared to be different.
And at a time when there hasn’t been too much to shout about on the rugby front, let’s take this opportunity to shout about the Lions. They’ve been that darn good.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images