JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s rugby player drain hit Saturday’s Super Rugby finalists the Lions hardest at the end of the last campaign, but the Johannesburg-based side have overcome defections and injuries to reach a third successive decider in the competition.
The Lions will take on defending champions Canterbury Crusaders in Christchurch hoping to make it third time lucky after defeats in the final in the last two years.
Each year has been a rebuilding job and by the end of 2017, 10 players had followed coach Johan Ackermann out of Ellis Park, most to teams in Europe.
For coach Swys de Bruin this season is therefore a personal triumph after what he has repeatedly admitted has been a difficult year for the team during which the side stuck to their playing principles despite their challenges.
“Hell‚ sport is an interesting thing,” he told reporters. “It can’t always be the ref‚ or this‚ or that‚ or the competition format‚ or injuries. You’ve got to play the hand that is dealt for you.
“Back in February all the so-called pundits were raving about the prospects of the Bulls, who they installed as the favourites to win the South African conference. They spoke about the Sharks… and we were written off. And here we are today.”
De Bruin took over at the end of the last Super Rugby season from Ackermann, who along with his son, loose-forward Ruan, left for English side Gloucester.
Springbok scrumhalf Faf de Klerk went to Sale Sharks in England and hooker Akker van der Merwe, who would make his international debut this year, to the Sharks from Durban.
Highly-rated defensive coach JP Ferreira also departed for Irish side Munster.
“Besides myself and Ivan van Rooyen, the conditioning coach, it became a completely new coaching team with Phillip Lemmer, Joey Mongalo and (son) Neil de Bruin coming in,” the Lions coach said.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy… you don’t just replace guys who’ve worked for so long, so successfully, with players. I needed guys I could trust 100 percent.
“That’s why I went with them… I knew they were young guys who’d only previously worked with the juniors.
“They were thrown in at the deep end and look how they’ve swum. They’ve been incredible.”
Such is the nature of South African rugby, De Bruin will have to rebuild again next season, whatever the result on Saturday.
“It’s the reality of professional sport. Now we’ve lost Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Dreyer, Franco Mostert, and maybe some others.”
Last season’s skipper in the Super Rugby final, Jaco Kriel, who will miss Saturday’s final with injury, will also join Ackermann at Gloucester from next month.