Five years ago, in June 2012, John Mitchell was suspended from coaching the Lions. It took a gang of lawyers and six months for the union to sever ties with the former All Black coach.
Johan Ackermann, Mitchell’s assistant, was left holding the baby. He was put in charge of a crumbling union that had lost its Super Rugby status for 2013 to the Kings.
Sponsors, marquee players and supporters all fled. Without a competition to play in for the first half of 2013, the Lions were forced to organise a series of friendlies against French and British teams.
In February that year, Ackermann called Swys de Bruin and asked whether he would be interested in helping to rebuild the union. De Bruin said yes and, after Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Crusaders, he will take over from Ackermann as head coach.
De Bruin remembers the early months. “When I arrived, we got hammered by the Bulls in a friendly in Soweto and it felt like the union had been hit by a tsunami. So many players had left that Ackers and I had to start again from scratch. We didn’t have the big players who could run over opponents, so we decided to play a brand of rugby that would suit the players we had. In short, we put the boot away.”
De Bruin was fortunate in that he was aware of a number of talented players on the fringes of provincial representation who had not been given a fair opportunity. Having worked for nine years at the Sharks Academy, De Bruin developed an acute eye for potential. So, where others saw the Lions squad as a depository for those who couldn’t make it at a major union, Ackermann and De Bruin saw unrealised potential.
The captaincy passed to Warren Whiteley, whose game responded to the challenge and propelled him into the Springbok squad. Franco Mostert, Marnitz Boshoff and Warwick Tecklenburg were important signings from the Bulls, with Robbie and Andries Coetzee coming from Tuks. Ross Cronjé, Howard Mnisi, MB Lusaseni, Mark Richards and Julian Redelinghuys came through the Sharks Academy during De Bruin’s time at the helm.
A desperately close and hard-fought promotion/relegation series with the Kings meant that the Lions regained their Super Rugby status in 2014, and the rest is history. They won seven games that year and nine in 2015, and lost in last year’s final to the Hurricanes. This year they topped the log and on Saturday they will host the final.
It is the end of an era, with Ackermann heading off to coach Gloucester next week, but De Bruin says: “I’m excited and sad in a way that such a great five years is coming to an end with such a great friend. But it’s not a case of starting afresh with new faces; it’s a case of carrying on, you know.
“In the first year or so, we lost guys like Franco van der Merwe and JC Janse van Rensburg, then Warwick Tecklenburg retired, Dylan des Fountain got injured and Marnitz Boshoff moved to Connacht. Harold Vorster and Ruan Ackermann joined us in the last two years from the junior ranks. But from the last four years we’ve had wonderful continuity.”
So much so that the Lions tried to make this Saturday one big party for the extended squad. The Bulls were asked whether they would like to move their Currie Cup fixture across the Jukskei and play it as the curtain-raiser. The Cheetahs were also asked whether they might consider moving their U-19 fixture to the home of the Lions. Both provinces said no.
Undaunted, the Lions will play their Currie Cup fixture at Loftus with what De Bruin describes as “a combined third/fourth team”. That’s because 31 players, including the match-day squad of 23, will be otherwise engaged — “because even the guys who are not playing, we want them to be at the final. We’ve worked for this for the last four years and they deserve to be there.”
It is little details like these that make these Lions what they are. Win or lose against the Crusaders, the strength of the team environment is paramount. That was particularly evident at last week’s semifinal, which the Hurricanes led 22-3 five minutes before half-time and the prophets of doom were saying that the Lions had reaped the whirlwind of not facing Kiwi opposition in log play.
The game changed when prop forward Jacques van Rooyen picked up the ball and the defender and drove both over the line for the Lions’ first try. It was 22-10 at the break and Ackermann said he thought the Crusaders looked tired. De Bruin says: “Jacques van Rooyen is an unreal human being in our team. He leads the Thursday morning prayer meeting and he’s an inspirational guy. When he scored that try, coming from one of the leaders, there was a big injection in the team.
“We felt in the changing room that we were fitter and stronger than them. The modern scoring system means that 12 points down is not a lot; it’s just two tries. We started a few years back with a very process-driven method, where you break the 80 minutes up into 10-minute sections. The players know that at the beginning of each 10 minutes you start again, whether you’re up or down on the scoreboard.
“Even if they have a big score already, at half-time we would try and convince them that it’s still 0-0, and that the process starts again with the next scrum, the next line-out. We find the team responds to that and so, against the Hurricanes, that was what we talked about at half-time.”
The Lions won the second half 34-7 and only the Crusaders stand between them and the realisation of a dream. De Bruin says: “It sounds like a cliché, but it’s really a case of less is more now. We’ve done our homework; we know how to play. The New Zealand sides mostly play a similar style; maybe the Hurricanes have a more flamboyant backline, while the Crusaders’ defence and discipline is a bit better.
“They use a folding system as part of the rush defence and they hit your breakdown harder. What singles out the Crusaders, I think, is that they’ve got the best set pieces of all the New Zealand sides. Their sides have had the same tactic for a long time now when they play at altitude. They try to outskill you and outrun you, and they hope to break you down that way.
“Once they’ve got you and the knife is in, they know how to turn it. That’s what the Hurricanes tried last week, but the way to beat them is to take them on at the arm wrestle and not let them break you down.”
That rather sums up the Ackermann/De Bruin era. They inherited a damaged vehicle, but instead of calling the Automobile Association, they rolled up their sleeves and found a way to get it back on the road. They hit a speed bump against the Sharks in the quarterfinal and needed to draw on hidden reserves of fuel against the Hurricanes.
The vehicle that crosses the line against the Crusaders might not be in showroom condition, but to the players it will feel like a Formula One car.