After the roller-coaster ride of 2011, which included the franchise from Johannesburg finishing bottom of the South African Conference, being placed 14th on the Super 15 log, claims of the owners bankruptcy and, of course, a famous Currie Cup victory, you cannot blame the fans for demanding a bit of stability. That is the key message from Lions coach John Mitchell; stability and consistency in the area that he and his players can control – the pitch.
Forget for a minute the franchise’s horrible financial situation, their insolvency and the reports of players not receiving their paychecks, and focus on what John Mitchell has achieved with this young and exciting team. He has lead the Lions out of years in the rugby wilderness and given the fans a reason to believe that the impossible may just be possible. Now I am not in any way suggesting that the Lions will achieve anything more than a couple of major upsets and a mid to lower end of the log finish, but for the first time in recent history there is an air of hope and atmosphere of determination surrounding the Lions’ camp. With less travelling in the new format of the Super 15 and more derby games, teams like the Lions, who are a formidable opponent within the confines of South Africa and Ellis Park, have more of a chance to showcase their talent. Having gained the experience of winning a major trophy in 2011, there is no doubt that this young and exciting team from Joburg will fire out of the blocks in their first fixture of Super 15 2012 at home against the Cheetahs. The Question is: if they can carry on that momentum throughout the competition? Sadly, I think not.
The Lions spent 2011 building the strength and depth of a squad that would allow them to go on and outplay a formidable Sharks team in the Currie Cup final, adding former Stormers backline player Dylan Des Fountain and Springbok veteran CJ Van der Linde to their squad. In the current offseason they have also enlisted the help of twins Guy and Ross Cronje from the Sharks, Maties captain Callie Visagie and Lock forward Stephan Greef who played for Western Province in last years Vodacom Cup, Griquas 24 year old lock Hendrik Roodt (who also had a short stint with the Waratahs) and the Moolman brothers, Whestley (21) and Bradley (20), who played scrum half for the Leopards and center for the Blue Bulls Under 21 teams respectively. They have also acquired South African born U20 Australian scrumhalf Eddie Bredenhann, who looks to be an exciting talent.
With one of the most difficult coaching jobs in South Africa right now, Coach John Mitchell is having to put his faith in the youth that he has brought into the squad. “I have a few under-19 players because there was nothing to buy, at least not players with reputation. I’d rather bring youth through the ranks in our system and that has been a big part of my coaching career. I will be looking to close that mental window for them (the youngsters) very quickly, also because the (substitutes) bench will be critical at some stage, we have to make sure that we’ve prepared the guys.” Mitchell said during a Lions press conference.
With little to no money in the franchise’s reserves, this will be a true test of the sustainability of the Lions Rugby Union. If Mitchell can develop some of his young talent into a team that will in two or three years challenge for top place in the South African conference then I believe that the financial troubles will work themselves out (who wouldn’t want to invest in a winning team and brand), but this will not be easy. Mitchell has already started changing the mindset of the stone-aged board members in the GLRU but he must push the players harder, get the best out of them as individuals and gel them into a team that could, without exaggeration, dominate South African and Super 15 rugby in years to come.
There is no doubt that John Mitchell and the Lions are playing an exciting style of rugby at the moment; keeping the ball in hand and stretching defences with their potent backline. Stormers Coach Alister Coetzee recently paid complement to Mitchell on the way they play, “We saw what a threat the Lions pose when they dominate,” said Coetzee, “We were physical and showed attitude. It’s the kind of attributes we need to see as we approach the start of the season.”
If the Lions can keep doing what they are doing and don’t fall apart after leaking a couple of trys or get thumped during the long season, there is no reason to believe that they could not find themselves comfortably seated mid table at the end of the season. Not ending up as the lowest ranked South African team at the end of the season may be the lifeline that this Lions team needs to survive. With talks of the Kings from Port Elizabeth joining Super Rugby in 2013, the last ranked team may just be relegated from the competition altogether. If that happens to the Lions they may as well put a “for sale” sign on the stadium and close up shop. If they can win 80-90% of their home games and one or two their overseas games I think the fans and coaching staff will be happy, anything more may just be a stretch too far for now. Ladbrokes.com giving them 40/1 to win the competition, which is quite a long-shot
Lions Squad for 2012:
Props:Patric Cilliers, CJ van der Linde, Jacobie Adriaanse, JC Janse van Rensburg, Hookers: Bandise Maku, Martin Bexuidenhout, Edgar Marutlulle, Callie Visagie, Locks: Wikus van Heerden, Hendrik Roodt, Franco van der Merve,Loose Forwards:Cobus Grobbelaar, Jaco Kriel, Derick Minnie, Micheal Rhodes, Josh Straus (c), Warren Whitely,
Scrum Halves: Michael Bondesio, Ross Cronje, Westley Moolman, Fly Halves: Butch James, Elton Jantjies, Centers: Alwyn Hollenbach, Doppies la Grange, Lionel Mapoe, Waylon Murray, Wingers: Jannie Boshoff, Dylan des Fountain, Michael Killian, Deon van Rensburg, Fullbacks: James Kamana, Jaco Taute.