From a roar to a whimper: the fall of the mighty Lions
The cracks had already started forming, but the loss to the Sharks signaled their inevitable fall from greatness
The intermittent tremors the Lions felt over the past while have caused fault lines.
They are trying to put on a brave face, but their defeat to the Sharks last weekend was possibly the first tangible sign that what they’ve built over the past half a decade is beginning to crumble.
The defeat to the Sharks gave more than just a hint that they are losing their status as South African standard bearers in Super Rugby.
That loss represents more than just the last convulsions of a team on the brink of elimination.Even before their unbeaten run of 21 matches against South African opposition, the Lions had steadily asserted themselves in the competition in general.
At the peak of their powers between the start of the 2015 season and the commencement of the current campaign, the Lions had lost just 13 out of 52 matches in Super Rugby. It helped them reach the finals in 2016 and 2017.
Fault lines, of course, were inevitable. In 2017, Faf de Klerk, coach Johan Ackermann and his son Ruan opted for contracts in England.
This year, Jaco Kriel, Ruan Dreyer, Jacques van Rooyen and potentially Franco Mostert and Andries Coetzee will move on. Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe’s futures are still in the balance, and SA Rugby top-ups, which may result in game time in the Rugby Championships, may be required to tie them to the franchise.
Of course, the Lions, mainly through chief executive Rudolf Straeuli. are pulling out all the stops to retain what they have.
That they have kept the core of their side together for the past five, six seasons is testament to the environment they’ve created in and around Ellis Park.Players want to play for the Lions, Kevin de Klerk, the president of the Golden Lions, noted, but he was quick to concede that money carries an irresistible allure.“This is like a family business,” said De Klerk.
“We are here for the long haul. My concern starts with money. We built these youngsters to where they are today. They are moving off.
“You create a system for people to grow into. One of our players who have left said he misses this. Not everybody likes the religious side of things. I’m religious, Akkers (Johan Ackermann) is very religious. The guys who have left don’t find that elsewhere. They miss the culture we have here.
“Now we are more cosmopolitan, but we’ve created a culture where players feel welcome. That should never disappear.”It is a system in which captain Warren Whiteley feels at home. He is not moving anywhere but his decision is made easier by the safety net provided by an SA Rugby contract that handily augments his income at the Lions. The same applies for 2017’s SA player of the year, Malcolm Marx.
Their presence, along with the blend of youth and experience in Ruan Combrinck, Ross Cronje, Kwagga Smith, Harold Vorster, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Marnus Schoeman, Hacjivah Dayimani, Marvin Orie and Dylan Smith, should ensure the Lions remain competitive for at least the next season or so.
Their drop may not be precipitous, but inexorably, the Lions will eventually yield to gravity.