It’s never nice when it happens, but it’s an inevitable destination for even the greatest of teams: The end. Now, on the back of that uncomfortable truth, a troubling question: Have the Lions reached it?
You’d be making a fair point if you told me that a couple of bad games early in the competition shouldn’t be considered season-defining, but based on the past two weekends of Super Rugby it looks as if South Africa’s premium side of the past few seasons has lost its fear factor.
The first half of Saturday’s Jukskei Derby was the first time in a number of seasons that I have seen the Lions simply being bossed around by a team in 40 minutes of rugby. The Lions deserved their 0 and the Bulls more than their 14.
Swys de Bruin’s charges at least showed backbone in the second half, but losing 30-12 at home is a very bad day at the office. Even if you go down fighting.
Heading into the season the Lions had only lost once in their last 23 games against South African opposition. The 31-24 defeat to the Sharks last year was the first loss in a derby since going down 35-33 to the Bulls at Loftus on 22 May 2015. To date this year it’s 0 from 2 against local competition after losses to the Stormers and the Bulls.
Many Lions fans shifted the blame to referee Egon Seconds for the loss at Newlands by pointing to an incorrect late penalty call from which the Stormers would launch the final waves of attacks that eventually led to Herschel Jantjies’ match-clinching try. However, this conveniently ignores how the Stormers were done in during the latter stages of the first half.
So what’s gone, or is going, wrong?
Firstly, coaches are generally only as good as their players, which means the cumulative loss of talent to the Northern Hemisphere is bound to take its toll.
The big one after last year’s campaign was Springbok lock Franco Mostert, who had an immense presence in the lineouts for a number of seasons. There’s been a steady drip of other talented players – chief among them dynamo flank Jaco Kriel – towards more lucrative pastures.
Another significant factor is that the Lions were partly built around personalities. On the playing front, skipper Warren Whiteley really rallies the troops, so his injury-enforced 6-8 weeks on the sidelines will feel like a long time for the Lions.
The lack of leadership was tangible after he departed the scene towards the end of the first half against the Stormers. In his absence the Lions lost their way, and with it their discipline. Elton Jantjies, who one would have expected to step up as a leader in such a situation, appeared disrespectful in his approach to the referee, introducing a rare un-endearing feel about the Lions.
Malcolm Marx led the Pride against the Bulls, but again the Lions looked a shadow of what they once were. They offered little penetration on attack, defended poorly and made uncharacteristic errors. When they eventually crossed the line it was Carlu Sadie – a tighthead prop on loan from the Stormers – that emerged with the ball after a little bludgeoning at the Bulls’ defence.
As things stand there is an almost perfect storm of a loss of talent and continuity, which could also impact on motivation.
Mostert, for example, was a ‘go-to man’ in the lineouts and would also have had a settling effect on Marx. With Whiteley also temporarily gone, the spine and leadership thread has been partly ripped out of the team.
When the Lions were at their best, I always felt that the sum was greater than the parts. On talent alone they were nowhere near the best side in the competition, but De Bruin’s predecessor, Johan Ackermann, had built a team in the true sense of the word.
The Lions’ season won’t be a complete flop, but it won’t be a resounding success. The real question is whether the franchise has rapid powers of re-generation as more players will be moving on after this year.
This week’s game against the Jaguares in Johannesburg will be telling. The Lions are no doubt hurting and have a lot to prove. They get to do so against a side that has a tradition of travelling poorly.
A 40-point win will have supporters triumphantly thumping their chests and media trumpeting that the Lions are far from finished.
They will win more often than they lose. But serious title contenders? No longer.