Going into the knockout stages of Vodacom Super Rugby, the Lions should be asking themselves what they have actually achieved in all their years of dominating South African rugby.
Tomorrow’s quarterfinal against the Jaguares at Ellis Park marks the beginning in earnest of the Lions’ quest to qualify for a third successive final in the competition, following seasons in which they were the best domestic side by a considerable distance.
But as insulting as it may sound in some quarters – especially Johannesburg – one has to ask what it has all been in aid of.
Two successive Super Rugby finals; three SA Conference “titles”; a ridiculous record against the domestic sides (played 22, lost one, drawn one); and the enthralling rugby played along the way are nothing to be sneered at.
To answer Maximus’ question in the film Gladiator, we are entertained, but where are the trophies? Are the current Lions players – some of whom will go down as the franchise’s greatest – happy with being remembered for having only played attractive rugby than having actually won anything?
If this sounds harsh on the Lions, consider that since coming back from Super Rugby relegation as the dominant force in SA rugby, they have only won one Currie Cup title, which has created the strange narrative of a team that does well in franchise rugby but not domestically.
The mitigating fact there – not having their top players available during the Currie Cup due to their commitments to Japanese club rugby – may well provide clues to why the Lions have fallen short when it comes to winning titles.
Through European or Japanese contracts, the players who toughed it out when the Lions were relegated have been rewarded tenfold for their loyalty. The catch is that while entire careers have been built and a lot of money has been made from those rewards, suddenly having everything from having been down and out may have dimmed their collective motivation.
The legacies of great teams are made on trophies won, not how much money their players made.
A great example of this is the Bulls, who won all three of the Super Rugby finals they contested, this when the competition was still considered to be strength versus strength and not the current cross-conference mess it has become.
A lot of those Bulls players also formed the core of the Bok team and went on to win a World Cup, Tri-Nations and a British and Irish Lions series, while with the exception of Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert, few of the Lions players can say their domestic form has transferred as seamlessly to international rugby.
In a way the Lions have also found ways to sabotage their chances of winning in the couple of years they have been within range.
In 2016 there was the decision to send an under-strength side to play the Jaguares, which lost the Lions the top spot on the log and meant a final in New Zealand. And long before Kwagga Smith’s first half red card in last year’s home final, the distraction had already come in the form of news that their inspirational coach Johann Ackermann was leaving for Gloucester.
The Lions have also been guilty of wanting too many chances to take their chance. If you look at the last three winners, the Highlanders, the Hurricanes and the Crusaders, they all made sure they won when they got to the final because they didn’t know when the opportunity would come again.
The reason the question of legacy has become shrill for the Lions is the rumours of a player exodus and coach Swys de Bruin’s possible permanent move to the Springboks at the end of this Super Rugby season.
This means the Lions will be rebuilding next year regardless of whether they win or not. Now might as good a time as any to rid themselves of a reputation for being all flash and no substance.