Johannesburg - Franco van der Merwe has stepped down as captain of struggling Super 15 team the Lions, saying he wants to focus on improving his own performances.
The second rower said on Thursday he had been battling for form and needs to "focus on my own game right now."
The Lions said centre Doppies la Grange would take over as skipper of a team which has won just one of its last 20 Super Rugby fixtures, losing five out of six games this season.
The Johannesburg outfit went winless in last year's Super 14, the first time a team has lost 13 games in a Super rugby tournament.
Van der Merwe backed La Grange ahead of Saturday's game against Australia's Reds, saying: "Doppies has been playing some very good rugby and is a good leader."
Van der Merwe, who replaced Cobus Grobbelaar as captain when Mitchell arrived to try and rescue the Lions sinking ship, has paid the price for his lineout frailties after he received a savage mauling against the Bulls by opposite number Victor Matfield.
Both after the loss to the defending champions and on Thursday, Mitchell made no bones about the fact the lineout cost them the Loftus match, and with Van der Merwe beaten to no less than four balls by Matfield at crucial times in the game, he will no longer lead the side.
The Lions have made it clear that it was a “collective decision” but such a drastic move in the middle of the season is uncommon in rugby terms, and either the captaincy was interfering with Van der Merwe’s primary role as player, or there has been a shift away in confidence from the man Mitchell has trusted with the leadership role for the last year.
La Grange, whose form is exceptional at the moment and who has strong leadership qualities himself, will now move up from vice-captain. No replacement vice-captain has been named.
“We’ve been beaten by small margins in the games and it wasn’t an easy decision to make. But if that is what it takes to move forward as a team, then a big decision like this needs to be made,” Van der Merwe said after announcing he was stepping down.
“There is a lot of pressure on the captain - but remember this was not a one-man decision but rather a collective of the coaching and management team and the senior players. This is the decision that it is the best way forward. If I can help improve my form and the way forward by stepping down, then it is for the best.”
Mitchell said no other candidates had been considered, primarily because former captains Cobus Grobbelaar and Wikus van Heerden weren’t certainties in their positions in the team.
“There was nobody else considered. Form is the outstanding quality firstly and then how the player is followed by teammates and his actions. The other players are in competition for places and there are no certainties in this group,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell made a few other changes to the side, signalling his intent not to be happy with the team’s slide into mediocrity. Elton Jantjies has been dumped for Andre Pretorius, while Joshua Strauss returns in place of Derick Minnie.
Lions: 15. Michael Killian, 14. Lionel Mapoe, 13. Waylon Murray, 12. Doppies La Grange (captain), 11. Deon van Rensburg, 10. Andre Pretorius, 9. Jano Vermaak, 8. Warren Whitely, 7. Joshua Strauss, 6. Cobus Grobelaar, 5. Franco van der Merwe , 4. David Bullbring, 3. Patric Cilliers, 2. Bandise Maku, 1. JC Janse van Rensburg.
Substitutes: 16. Edgar Marutlulle, 17. Jacobie Adriaanse, 18. Michael Rhodes, 19. Derick Minnie, 20. Rory Kockott, 21. Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute.