It’s over, Lions fans

Stephen Nell

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.

- Stephen Nell

Let's chat

  • Stanley Smith

    I don’t think any of our teams look like Title contenders.

    • Johan

      First Lions flew to Argentina and beat the Jaguars away.
      Then the Bulls flew to Argentina and lost to the same Jaguars.
      Finally the Bulls then beat the Lions.

      Going to be an interesting year…

      The Lions have been kicked out of Super Rugby, lost massive players through the years like Habana, Jaque Fourie, and more recently Faf, Jaco, Van Rooyen, Dreyer, Mostert, Rohan etc…

      Johan Ackermann, Mitchell..

      But as they say:
      “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.”

      The Lions have always stood back up, eventually, lets see if they can do it quicker this time

  • Wesley

    Although i agree with the statement of the ariticle Stephen, your taking the mickey out of Lions supporters between the good points you make does leave a bit of a sour taste, which many of us wont take very well. It does seem many is loving the fact the Lions are losing their dominance, but it does mean a bit of a detriment to SA rugby as a whole if this is to continue. The chest thumping we displayed over the last few seasons was also justified, especially if you consider the ashes the Lions has risen from with basically no star players, bashing around teams that were trying to buy their way out of a slump instead of investing in young talent and team culture trying to build cohesion. Now those who came from nothing or rejected by other franchises have become Boks, and moved on accordingly to bigger money using their star power as negotiating leverage, which I am very proud of as a Lions fan. Its inevitable that the party wont last forever, but it sure was fun while it lasted.

  • Franco

    It’s obvious that the John Mitchell groundwork and Johan Ackerman carry-on have worn out by now. All we have at SuperRugby now is unqualified SA coaches who are out of their depth. We should be backing our coaches through the Currie Cup ranks, like the Jimmy Stonehouses, or welcoming back ex-Springbok coaches. But it seems experience is not a requirement for a SA SupeRugby coach. You just need to know the right people to get the job.

    • Cobus Brits

      It looks like great teams and coaches are cyclical in nature.

      A poor team gets a good coach which inspires the better players to stick around and the better players from elsewhere get recruited. Sponsors follow suit.
      Happy team environment, great results. Team matures and good offers from overseas clubs follows.
      The stars leave exept those wanting to play for the Boks especially if it is a WC year. Newbies try their best but ultimately cannot keep up the pace as their inexperience catch up.

      Only reason Bulls won the second and third SR titles in 2009 and 2010 was because of the British and Irish Lions series in 2009 for which the players stuck around for.

      This time around, very few of the big Bok names seem to want to hang around for the BIL tour in two years and thats maybe one of the reasons why SA Rugby changed the contracting rules to try and leave enough money on the table for those who want to stay but is hard to economically, even for great tours like the BIL.

    • Wesley

      Do some research on the current head coaches CVs and you will see all of them are pretty experienced aside from Fleck as his looks pretty thin, which i think is why they opted for Dobson after this season. They may seem lacklustre from performance point of view but failings of the franchise teams come from many factors to consider such as players, union support and assistants etc. Another thing to consider is the money side as for e.g. the Lions, in the wake of poor showings through 2009 etc, had since been backed by millionare businessman Altman Akkers, which gave a massive boost as the union was in financial ruins before then with Jannie Ferreira at the helm. He and his vice was pressured out of their positions, paving the way for Kevin de Klerk, Altman, Mitchell and thus Ackermann. The men are not islands…

  • SweetAz

    Lions supporters are dix,- I’ll just leave it at that.

    • albert Hoffmann

      Shame baby, tired of all the beatings? Go get a tissue and have a good cry.. boo hoo sob sob..

      • SweetAz

        Grow up before I knock your milk teeth down your throat, moron.

        • Koos

          Big talk for a little man that ran away from South Africa

          • SweetAz

            With a name like Koos, I would have to doubt not only yours but your parent’s intelligence as well, I scored 143 on an online IQ test, got 9 distinctions in matric and hold medical, engineering and a law degrees. I am so in demand its scary, in fact, I might even get a Nobel prize for my research in mitochondrial disease to go with my awards for Quantum Mechanics studies

            And my dick is bigger than yours.

          • Koos

            M.Sc in Computer Science from the NWU PUKKE on my name, member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, and won the Top Student in both Hons. and Master degrees.
            (Partied a bit too much for the first 3 years)

            I think your “trifecta” just fell apart…

            Clearly with statements like:
            “Lions supporters are dix”
            “I think someone swapped the D in your name for a K”
            “Bah Humbug Bullshit.”

            Your level of intelligence is not in question…

            PS. Computer Science is a scarce skill and I can get a job anywhere in the world
            Click me

          • SweetAz

            I think someone swapped the D in your name for a K. Or maybe you just can’t read and spell? I find most of the people who make that particular comment are just unwanted anywhere else in the world, normally through a lack of skills, education or intelligence. In your case I see you won the trifecta.

  • Barry

    A little early to be righting off any team as yet. Memories are short – the lions went through most of last year without Whitely!

    All four have had their moments thus far, though unfortunately, the Sharks didn’t look so good on “Peyper”!

    • albert Hoffmann

      he is just another biased unprofessional SA journalist. writing an article like this after one loss. Pathetic. and only to get click bait, simple as that.

      • Albert

        2 losses…in a row…against the weakest SA teams. Shame, shame on your biased views. LOL

  • The Saint

    Let’s face it, the Lions team was always greater than the sum of its parts, what they had, and I said as much many times, were mercenaries who were unable to break through at other franchises, little to no homegrown talent. They, all of them, no exceptions, were riding the red wave, until their association with the brand, got them sufficient recognition to secure lucrative contracts elsewhere, where they could continue being shockingly average in their own right.

    With the exception of Mostert and Faf, not one player set the world alight when given green and gold duties, that should say enough, and sadly that is where we find ourselves now, there has never been true loyalty to the Lions, the team was merely a means to an end, and now that means has run its course…

    • John Comyn

      Not sure if you are right. Every now and then a team comes along that gels perfectly. To get there takes time and sometimes severe adversity where there is literally nothing left to lose. The Liuons were dumped out of SR as well as being in dire financial straits. What they achieved is phenomenal. Leicester City is a perfect example of what is possible when they won the premier league in 2016 with no stars and a tiny budget. I seriously do not think the players were using them intentionally as a stepping stone. They were simply a side who played for each other, their coaches and the supporters. The fact that big offers came is nothing unusual. Let us not forget that the man got them there is the same man that plundered the unions players – Johan Ackerman!

      • Barry

        Bugger, I can’t find anything wrong with that! Let me sleep on it. Lol

      • The Saint

        My point exactly, not loyal to the union, but to the coach.

        And Leicester is a very apt example, same position now, as the lions, guts and glory can bring you only that far, then you start needing quality, which is sorely lacking in both teams.

        That is why they are moving on, they know their true worth better than us. Should the lions implode this season, they aren’t worth much anymore…cash in journeyman!

    • Wesley

      Beg to differ on the setting the world alight comment. I think its pretty fickle to assume that you have to break out entirely as some sort of superfreak to have made a great contribution to your union or Bok causes.

      And homegrown talent as opposed to other teams? You mean like Duane and Handre? No team is loaded with “homegrown” talent. Perhaps the most retained team from just a cursory glance is probably the Stormers, with many of their Bok stars bred in the WC. Thats the price of professional rugby.

      • The Saint

        Then name the great contributors to the Bok cause, Marx, Faf and Mostert, out of the 13 or so picked, none had any real lasting contributions, or did I miss the bunch of lions in the current bok setup?

        It is understood that rugby is a pro sport, however, Pollard at least was poached when he was a kid, learned his game in the Bulls setup, Vermeulen was a marquee signing, established superstar, even you have to acknowledge the difference, who was the last age-group lions star? Marx. While all the other unions have just about half their current teams coming from internal structures.

        The lions had a bunch of journeymen, that wanted to prove their previous unions wrong, which they did to an extent, but when better offers came along, the journey continued.

        • albert Hoffmann

          and where are these great boks currently ranked genius??

        • Wesley

          Please show me the numbers you are backing this comment up with, because it seems grasped from thin air. If you can prove me wrong, please do so.

          What is the big deal if they were even “journeymen”? Does this mean if you don’t make it at your junior union or get poached straight out of school, you don’t have a contribution to make and is thus termed a journeyman, which you obviously use as a insulting term? Also, you are exempt of such a term if you are a marquee superstar?

          Lets deal with the main players in the Lions set-up shall we…

          Whiteley didn’t jump from place to place, he had a short stint at Sharks, even a shot at EP, neither wanted him, Lions took him and so it goes.

          Dyantyi wasn’t even in any junior provincial structure, got snapped up straight from Varsity Cup after a few lucky events.

          Marx born and bred.

          Elton, although bashed by many constantly, has been a mainstay Bok inclusion for the past how many years, stepped in the place when Pollard was injured and no other alternative was given. He has made his contribution too, or would you rather he didn’t and someone else took up the mantle? He was bred Lions, but born in EC (lets get down to the semantics if you want).

          Mapoe, although on the fringes still getting some call ups to Bok inclusion. Born and bred Bloem, but after his contract ran out with the Cheetahs, was bought by Lions, where he remains now. Hardly a jump around player…

          Lets look at the big players that left:

          Faf did go to school in Pretoria, but still played youth rugby for Lions in 2010 – 2011. Taken on loan from Pumas for SR at the start, he transferred over permanently in 2016 but hardly played for the provincial union due to Bok call ups.

          Franco born in FS, but school and rugby in Blue Bulls country moved when he was deemed surplus, and settled just down the road. Hardly a journeyman.

          Honorable mentions:

          RJVR, pretty much same as Franco, very much in common in their story.
          Jaco Kriel, pretty much from the area close by – Standerton, where he went to varsity at UJ, local boytjie, no journeyman there.

          Anyone I’m missing?

          That pretty much covers the Bok contingent from the Lions, but my point being, sourcing a team can come from many angles in pro sport, all have some contribution to make, if the Bok coach calls, you answer. None of these players are journeymen jumping from place to place, and actually had like 1 union they just didn’t make it at or just moved on. Some of them very much born and bred. I’m sure some unions are kicking themselves seeing what some turned out as, but so is life in pro sport. I just don’t get your point other than to bash any player that signs up for the red and white.

          Also, Pollard was playing waaay beyond his age group at school level with talent scouts swarming at every Paarl Gym game. I even heard of the guy while he was still snot nosed with his mum packing his lunch, that’s the talent we were dealing with. He could have played for the damned Polisie team for all i care, he would have made it. Bulls didn’t teach him jack, but what they did do is keep the talent sharp.

  • Safmarine

    From a rugby point of view, might help to just have a few decent ball carriers up front – the grass is green, the sky is blue… Cyle is missed and Andries a big loss. Scrum’s been solid even with a light back row. Marvin needed to manage lineout.
    Backline almost the exact same it’s been for the last two seasons and Cronje/Elton gelled a bit in the second half. Why does Coetzee look like he’s about to die every time he runs into contact?
    Dyanti not in Bok form. Plundering and injuries have hurt no doubt.
    Bigger concern is we need to manage and rotate our stars in a RWC year – no ways Eben, Duane, PSDT etc. will be fit come Japan if they keep up this pace. This is why the NZ teams are stuttering now at the beginning of the campaign – they’ll come right at the business end of the comp.

    • John Comyn

      Which brings me to the NZ teams. They are not looking as flash as they normally would and I exclude the Crusaders with this comment. They are so far ahead of all the rest that the only thing to play for is a spot in the final. The scary thing is they are not even playing their 1st string side at the moment. Even if we got 2 sides to the semi it would in all likelihood mean the travel there just to get hammered. So there is really no point in even getting past the 1st play-offs. I’d rather not risk injuries to our players and have players spend more time with Rassie preparing for the WC.

  • Herman Schroder?

    Well Mr Nell how long have you been waiting to write this article or should I call it drivel ? There are many out there who just love to see a champion team unseated and it seems you are their cheerleader. There have been many responses already on this site where your limited insights into the supposed demise of the Lions have been exposed. But your strong hint of ‘crowing’ we shall remember as the season unfolds.

    A special thanks here to Wesley and a few other posters, even those who don’t support the Lions, to bring some proper perspective to their current form. There is no need for me to repeat them here suffice to say I hope you read these responses and favour us with an informed rebuttal of sorts.

    Mr Nel, one point I’d like to take a bit further is your assertion that the Lions ”on talent alone were not the best team in the competition”. May I remind you that while they built a cohesive team through first class management the players still had to produce the goods in the tough arena that is SR. You cannot do that without having superbly talented players and most importantly players with mental toughness. Something sadly lacking in the other Franchises with their proliferation of supposed ‘wonder Boks’.

    From 2016 to now what have the Boks produced by way of real success ? Nothing. Under AC less than a 50% winning ratio and even under Rassie a failed 50% win ratio despite having all the Boks who play overseas available to him. During the AC era everyone suffered under his non existent game plan and Rassie was not much better. Because the Lions were our only top performing side the few Lions that were selected were blamed for these losses out of all proportion to the other failed Franchise players.

    On Super Rugby on Monday night the modern trend of ‘rush defence’ was blamed for the inability of teams to score tries and I agree with that. Even the NZ teams are now showing signs of vulnerability around this factor. Of course this feeds into the ideal of the Dom Krag brigade who believe that kicks and turnovers off mistakes is the way to go. The call now is therefore to play WC type rugby.

    The only problem I can foresee with this is that the other teams with smarter coaches and smarter more skillful players will adapt far quicker than we can. Let’s hope that the Lions do likewise and Mr Nel will sit with a fair sprinkling of egg on his face come season end.

    On another note. Regrettably Rassie has now stated that 80% of his team from last year will be sent to the WC practically eliminating any SR form from the equation. What a tosser. That team of last year lost twice to England, twice to Wales, once each to NZ, Auss and Argentina and were lucky to beat France and Wellington was just an aberration folks. Way to inspire Mr Erasmus. Cheers.

    • Albert

      Oh gawd, the Russians are at it again. Schrodinger’s Cat is in fact a Russian bot designed to infiltrate and upset the South African rugby public. You can no longer pull the wool over our eyes, Russia. we are on to you and your regurgitated lines.

      Clearly this Russian bot has not been programmed with the facts that the Lions have lost 2 in a row to weak SA franchises. No amount of “perspective” from a subjective bot could possibly cover up the objective truth that champion teams would thrash the broken Stormers and “Limited” Bulls.

      • Herman Schroder?

        Albert, is that really your best shot ? Your team has obviously been hammered for the last few years and like Nel you start crowing prematurely. It’s called ”success envy” and you have it bad old chap. But I forgive you because you have every right to differ with me.

        A word of advice here. If I ‘regurgitate’ so much why do you continue to hang on my every word ? Or better still why don’t you apply your mind and actually counter my arguments with some thoughts of your own. Probably beyond you because it’s far easier to personalize it and shoot the messenger. Pathetic really. Cheers.

    • SweetAz

      Bah Humbug Bullshit.

      • Herman Schroder?

        SweetAz, Thanks for reading my contribution I really appreciate it. Pity it’s lost on you. Cheers.

      • Johan

        Would you kindly explain, with examples from the comment you reply to, the reasoning behind this crude and nonsensical comment?

        • SweetAz

          No mate, I have read his bullshit too many times to fall for that trick, everything he writes is the same crap over and over, I don’t even need to read it to know what it is,—HENCE my short comment

  • albert Hoffmann

    What a pathetic article written only for click bait. And u call yourself a journalist, gutter journalism at best. Do u need attention? how sad!

    • Albert

      Do you actually read the article? Or are you a typical emotionally charged keyboard warrior with zero objectivity and even lower IQ than an ostrich?

      • Herman Schroder?

        Albert, Still insulting people ?? Gee whiz get some anger management help old chap this is a rugby forum not a shooting gallery. Cheers.

  • albert Hoffmann

    “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.”

    again, what a pathetic comment, so if the team had no talent, then why are all these players now being bought by European teams and even a kiwi team. Seriously, seek help! u need it!

    • Herman Schroder?

      Well said Sir. Cheers.

    • Johan

      The Lions have lost all these players to richer teams… Clearly there are no individual skill in the Lions players/team. “On talent alone…”

      Jacques van Rooyen – Bath
      Ruan Dreyer, Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Ruan Ackermann, Jaco Kriel – Gloucester
      Andries Ferreira – Hurricanes
      Corné Fourie – Stormers
      Akker van der Merwe – Sharks
      Jaco van der Walt – Edinburgh
      Marnitz Boshoff – Bulls
      Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg – Sale

      Also these two that were great players:
      Julian Redelinghuys – Retired/Injured
      Warwick Tecklenburg – Retired

      • Herman Schroder?

        Mr Hoffman a wonderful objective response to Mr Nel, full marks to you. I wonder if Mr Nel will have the guts to respond though, probably not. Cheers.

  • Chris Mouton

    Geez AOR, what’s up with the sensationalist articles these days? Last week was the utter click-bait article about race that provoked heated responses from the readers on this site. It truly brought out the ugly side from everybody, which saddens me. Yet, anyone could’ve foreseen it, which surely means that an article like that was meant to provoke people and stoke hate speech. What were you hoping to achieve? To print it out and show to the rest of SA that there are race problems? Was that article supposed to vindicate the racist pessimists? Is that the answer to the problems of division in South Africa? Articles like those are part of the problem.

    This week we have this stupid article about the most successful SA SR side for the past 3 years being on the decline after 2 losses in the first 3 rounds of rugby. Normal logic would dictate that you would wait until at least half of the SR season to make such outlandish statements. It’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction about a team that has reached 3 SR finals in a row. Give credit where it’s due. BTW, you might’ve notice that all Kiwi teams, bar one, have struggled to hit their straps and had slow starts. By your logic these teams are also on the decline, no so? You can make such statements at your own peril, but a betting man wouldn’t.

    I’d rather trust the opinions of the other journalists on this than the clowns writing such rubbish. For the sake of your reputation, I think you should really think of what you want to produce on this site, AOR.

    • Herman Schroder?

      Chris, kudos to you for that insightful response to Mr Nel. I’ve taken you out out of my basement dwellers category with posters like SweetAz and placed you firmly in the ‘must read’ section. Well done. Cheers.

    • SweetAz

      It’s a free world swaerie, if you don’t like a site, don’t visit it, if you don’t like someone else’s opinion, don’t read it.

      Seems like you have been shackled to a communist government for so long you have adopted their intolerance to freedom of expression, you can’t MAKE someone love you, just like you cant Force a rainbow crapshoot down someone else’s throat.

      Now go ahead, call me a racist, you know you want to. I really don’t care, I don’t regard it as an insult anyway.

      • Herman Schroder?

        SweetAz, I hate being personal on these forums but you leave me no option old feller. Your first paragraph is so hypocritical that you have now confirmed to all who are prepared to listen that you are indeed a complete jackass not a sweetaz. I refer of course to your penchant for reading my every post where you hang on my every word before flicking the ‘bile’ switch. A free world indeed, lol. Cheers.

    • Albert

      Too much is being read out of context. The writer here has a point. Over the past 3 seasons the Lions have dominated SA teams, until the end of last year when the bike was wobbling and the sharks knocked them over. This season, the Lions have been beaten by the bottom dwellers over the last few seasons. It is an honest reflection of where the Lions are and the concerns that perhaps their time was the last 2 years which just unfortunately coincided with the Crusaders return to power.

      A little objective thinking and introspection and perhaps waiting before pounding the keyboard, would do wonders.

      • Chris Mouton

        Ag spare me your belittlement. It’s the 1st 3 rounds of Super Rugby. There are still months of rugby ahead, so anything can happen. The loss against the Sharks have been a long time coming. Sure, the losses of Mostert, Kriel and Whiteley (through injury) have taken their toll, but it’s too soon to say they’re on the decline. A few teams have started with a wobble. I would rather wait for another 5 games before I start making statements about a team’s decline. It certainly doesn’t help that their previous coach is trying to build his own Lions team up north…

  • albert Hoffmann

    hahahaha i love it when these unprofessional, biased and sensasionlist journalist get proved wrong! haha

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