The Lions’ hopes of a revival have taken a hit as yet another member of the golden generation has committed to an overseas club, writes JON CARDINELLI.
No South African side fared worse on ‘transfer day’ than the Lions. The Johannesburg-based franchise confirmed that four players, including World Cup-winner Malcom Marx, have been released from their contracts. The departure of Marx, and second-choice flyhalf Shaun Reynolds, will certainly hamper a team that’s still trying to rebuild following a devastating exodus.
The golden generation that won three straight conference titles and qualified for three finals is all but depleted. Only a handful of players that featured against the Hurricanes in the 2016 Super Rugby final are still with the Lions today.
Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Dylan Smith and Ross Cronje featured prominently for the franchise during the period of unprecedented success between 2016 and 2018. The injury-plagued Warren Whiteley is currently on the coaching staff but may yet make a return to play. Jaco Kriel is back in Johannesburg after a two-year stint with Gloucester.
It may encourage fans and stakeholders to know that these players are still with the team and they may well spearhead a rebuild. On the other hand, it’s worth noting how much the Lions have lost in terms of personnel since 2016.
LIONS DEPARTURES SINCE 2016 (FORWARDS)
|CYLE BRINK||FLANK||LEICESTER (2020)|
|MALCOLM MARX*||HOOKER||UNCONFIRMED (2020)|
|RUAN VERMAAK||LOCK||UNCONFIRMED (2020)|
|JACOBIE ADRIAANSE||PROP||RETIRED (2019)|
|ROBBIE COETZEE||HOOKER||UNCONFIRMED (2019)|
|ANDRIES FERREIRA||LOCK||BULLS (2019)|
|CORNE FOURIE||PROP||STORMERS (2019)|
|ROBERT KRUGER||LOCK||SHINING ARCS (2019)|
|STEPHAN LEWIES*||LOCK||HARLEQUINS (2019)|
|DANIE MIENIE||PROP||ROVIGO (2019)|
|KWAGGA SMITH*||FLANK||YAMAHA JUBILO (2019)|
|RUAN DREYER*||PROP||GLOUCESTER (2018)|
|JACO KRIEL*||FLANK||GLOUCESTER (2018)**|
|AKKER VAN DER MERWE*||HOOKER||SHARKS (2018)|
|JACQUES VAN ROOYEN||PROP||BATH (2018)|
|RUAN ACKERMANN||FLANK||GLOUCESTER (2017)|
|FRANCO MOSTERT *||LOCK||GLOUCESTER (2017)|
|WARWICK TECKLENBURG||FLANK||RETIRED (2016)|
**Has since returned to Lions
The list of departures shows that the Lions have suffered a significant exodus on virtually an annual basis. It’s not hard to understand why the once great side was – before the break in March 2020 – ranked last in the South African conference with a win record of 1-5.
Johan Ackermann, architect of the franchise’s revival between 2013 and 2017, kept most of the side together through to the final against the Crusaders at Ellis Park in 2017. Following the head coach’s departure to Gloucester, however, the senior players started to leave in droves.
The franchise lost most of its Springboks over the next few years, as well as a number of journeymen and promising youngsters. Ackermann’s long-time assistant, Swys de Bruin, managed to steer the team to another final in 2018, but by then the squad was severely depleted and that impacted on the performances as well as the results.
As the list above confirms, the loss of so many senior forwards has compromised the Lions in key areas such as the set pieces, collisions and rucks. They certainly missed the scrummaging and breakdown prowess of Marx earlier this year.
LIONS DEPARTURES SINCE 2016 (BACKS)
|TYRONE GREEN||WING||UNCONFIRMED (2020)|
|SHAUN REYNOLDS||FLYHALF||USON NEVERS (2020)|
|MADOSH TAMBWE||WING||SHARKS (2020)|
|RUAN COMBRINCK*||WING||STADE FRANCAIS (2019)|
|NIC GROOM||SCRUMHALF||EDINBURGH (2019)|
|SYLVIAN MAHUZA||WING||SHINING ARCS (2019)|
|LIONEL MAPOE*||CENTRE||STADE FRANCAIS (2019)|
|HOWARD MNISI||CENTRE||KINGS (2019)|
|FRANCO NAUDE||CENTRE||BULLS (2019)|
|ROHAN JANSE VAN RENSBURG*||CENTRE||SALE (2018)|
|FAF DE KLERK *||SCRUMHALF||SALE (2017)|
The Bok hooker played for the Shining Arcs in Japan before – eventually – returning to South Africa to fulfil a long-term commitment to the Lions. The latest news is that Marx has been released by the Lions and will head back to the Far East once the travel restrictions are lifted.
The loss of top coaches has also hampered the franchise’s progress. The Lions haven’t boasted the same balance in approach since defence coach JP Ferreira departed for Munster in 2017. They haven’t looked the same on attack without Ackermann, and subsequently without De Bruin, in tow.
It’s a shame that the Lions did not crack on after the 2017 season. While they qualified for the 2018 final, they notched up their third straight defeat in a decider.
One could describe that group as a golden generation in the context of the Lions’ largely disappointing Super Rugby history, and at the same time lament their inability to go all the way and lift the title. Who knows when they will get that chance again.
Nobody gave them a chance when they returned from the wilderness in 2014. Ackermann and company proved a lot of people wrong when they built a culture and gameplan that eventually brought them a series of record-breaking results.
That comeback tale remains one of South African rugby’s great stories and will give fans and stakeholders hope for a turnaround in future.
What that group did have, however, was continuity in personnel for a substantial period of time. The suits at Ellis Park will have to find a way to develop and retain the region’s talent over the next few years for the Lions to become a force once more.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images