Off-field drama has helped the Lions strengthen and consolidate on the field
The Lions have been in exceptional form since the end of February and are brimming with confidence heading into their Challenge Cup quarterfinal.
The Lions have quietly gone about their business in the past few weeks, racking up win after win. In fact, the Johannesburg-based side has won their last four games on the trot in the United Rugby Championship EPCR Challenge Cup.
The Lions’ current win-streak dates back to 25 February when they beat Glasgow Warriors 35-24 at Ellis Park.
Prior to that, the Lions had only won one of their seven previous matches.
The reason for their sudden turnaround in fortune on the field has a lot to do with their turmoil off the field in the week of their Glasgow victory.
A leaked MyPlayers survey revealed that Lions players had apparently given “very low” ratings of the coaches and administrative staff. Lions head coach Ivan van Rooyen reportedly only received a four out of 10 rating from the players while contract manager Tracy van Ginkel also scored poorly.
This leaked survey has united the Lions team. Since the leak, they have been clawing their way back into URC knockout contention and this past weekend pumped French outfit Racing 92 — with 14 men for 66 minutes — 51-28 in the Challenge Cup.
“That actually helped us in a positive way,” said Lions backline coach Jaque Fourie to the media this week.
“I don’t look too much at the stuff happening off the field. Our focus is to work on the rugby with the players.
“After all the stuff came out, we rallied together and said, ‘Listen guys, it can go one way, or we can stand together and start performing.’
“A week before we played Glasgow, we said we are going to pull off all the shackles and start playing and we’ve got nothing to lose. The guys have played with much more freedom in the last four games we’ve played and are enjoying themselves.”
Their win over Racing 92 in the last 16 on Saturday means the Lions now have a trip to Scotland to take on the Glasgow Warriors in the Challenge Cup quarterfinal.
“Glasgow have been playing some great rugby and with Franco [Smith] there we know he’ll come with something different. He’s an interesting character and he’s always got a few tricks [up his sleeve],” added Fourie.
“It’s important that we stay within our structure though and play the same way as what’s been working for us the last few weeks.
“This is knockout rugby… we’re not going to Glasgow to compete. We’re going there to win.”
The Lions will be without key loose forward Emmanuel Tshituka against Glasgow after the dynamic runner copped a three-week ban for dangerous play against Racing 92. But it is expected that veteran Jaco Kriel will step in for this weekend’s match.
The Lions can still, mathematically, qualify for a top-eight finish in the URC too, although they have to beat league leaders Leinster next week to keep their hopes alive.
“That’s our mindset. We’ve also got two URC games left (before the playoffs), and we want to finish the season on a high,” added Fourie.
Though Leinster have already wrapped up the top spot on the log and are guaranteed home knockout matches, they could very well send a second-string team to tackle the Lions in Johannesburg — which would play in Van Rooyen’s side’s favour in their ambition to grab one of the last spots available.
On the other side of the Jukskei River, the Bulls conversely, have had a torrid run of results dating back to January.
The Pretoria-based union have lost 10 matches on the bounce in all competitions, including the Champions Cup, URC and Currie Cup.
As from today, Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White has taken over the reins of Currie Cup coach after Edgar Marutlulle has been demoted back to coaching the junior coaching ranks — after only four matches in charge.
Assistant coaches Gert Smal, Hugo van As and Sean Everitt will, however, remain in their positions.
“I met with Edgar and he felt that there needed to be action taken, with the union coming first. A perspective that we both share and something I commend him on,” White said in a statement released by the Bulls.
“It is important that our coaches continue to feel as though there is a pathway. Sometimes we will get successes and sometimes we must take a step back and be proactive, and as a union we are doing exactly that,”
“I will take over, working with the new coaches. We will find a way, in and around the senior coaches, to make sure that we get our campaign back on track.”
The decision comes after the Bulls were knocked out of the Champions Cup last weekend by a 33-9 loss to Toulouse in France, subsequently, White has had his time freed up.
The Bulls are still in strong contention for a URC knockout spot – currently in seventh place – but will have to turn their fortunes around in their last two matches against Zebre and Leinster. DM