Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – An unpalatable thought might just have struck
some Lions supporters in the early stages of this year’s Currie Cup: are we
slipping backwards in broad terms after our successive close shaves as
runners-up in Super Rugby?
The earliest weeks of the increasingly diluted and maligned
all-domestic competition –still an important preparatory environment for the
bigger, multinational annual tournament – saw the Johannesburg-based franchise lose
an ominous five of their first six matches.
It was hardly a dream start in charge for Swys de Bruin,
following his elevation to head coach as much-loved Johan Ackermann moved to
Gloucester in the English Premiership and took his son, robust young loose
forward Ruan, with him.
At around the same time, of course, the Lions also
surrendered scrumhalf Faf de Klerk to Sale Sharks and crowd-pleasing “impact”
hooker Akker van der Merwe just down the proverbial drag to the SA-based
So it would have been understandable if some of the Emirates
Airline Park faithful just began to wonder if there was a slight dimming of the
light in the Big Smoke – a situation aggravated by that ropey old start to the
But De Bruin and his lieutenants, who have clearly kept a
suitably unpanicked hand on the tiller, have stabilised things again to a point
where the Lions not only look a decent enough bet for the Currie Cup title on
October 28 – they are away to Western Province in a semi this weekend – but
boasting the sort of squad strength and lustre to challenge fiercely once more
for the Super Rugby silverware in a few months’ time.
The Lions, in a complete statistical reversal of their
record at the midway stage of round-robin play, have won five of their closing
six fixtures, including a convincing 44-17 dismantling of the Cheetahs on
Saturday to make sure they wouldn’t miss the last-four cut.
Frankly, they seem barely less likely than the Sharks, the
very comfortable log-toppers, to win the Currie Cup from this “cleaned slate”
juncture, whilst the other semi-finalists, WP and the Blue Bulls, will feel
they have a puncher’s chance as well.
In recent years, the Lions’ quest for the domestic trophy –
though they have still won it twice in the last six seasons – has been hampered
a bit by bigger absenteeism than most other big domestic franchises as some of
their players experience lucrative pre-Super Rugby stints in Japan and there is
also the customary Currie Cup game-shy phenomenon among top Springboks.
De Bruin has not been averse to blooding generous numbers of
players from the Lions’ clearly vibrant under-21 ranks or just beyond it, and
the policy seems to have been paying off recently, with a handful of them not
only looking promising in the current competition but potentially adding
gratifyingly to depth for the 2018 Super Rugby slog.
Just for example, there have been hugely constructive
showings either in fairly regular or more fleeting exposure from the likes of
Marco Jansen van Vuren (21), Madosh Tambwe (20), Len Massyn (20) and the
22-year-old Aphiwe Dyantyi.
Scrumhalf Van Vuren is an especially interesting case as he
seems an early, new “Joost van der Westhuizen” in the making with his unusual
height (1.88m) and sniping ability even through small gaps.
If the lean kid from Vanderbijlpark can become two-thirds as
good as the late Highveld legend, he’ll be massively useful.
Meanwhile the assertive showing of Massyn, who doubles as an
open-sider or No 8, in the key triumph over the Cheetahs also bodes well, given
the possibility that the Lions begin next year’s Super Rugby still without
injury-rehabbing senior loosies and Springboks Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel.
Kinshasa-born wing Tambwe and wing-cum-centre Dyantyi also look
full of enterprise and defence-penetrative ability, and should only get better
as they develop over the next couple of seasons.
Remember that despite the loss of previously-mentioned
Ackermann, De Klerk and Van der Merwe from their playing staff, the Lions will
retain the overwhelmingly majority of their more seasoned resources from the
last two productive Super Rugby campaigns, including that emerging world star
at hooker Malcolm Marx.
Just as gladdening to Lions enthusiasts who watched the
Cheetahs game on Saturday would have been the thunderous contribution of Cyle
Brink, his first-team opportunities curtailed for two years by the presence of
Ackermann, Whiteley and Kriel but still only 23 and a serious prospect as a
He combines wrecking-ball qualities at close quarters with
sometimes deceptive, blistering speed in open play, and his path may be clearer
now for an extended run in the No 7 jersey.
No doubt deeply mindful of what the sacrifice of diminutive
De Klerk does to their scrumhalf depth, it is also a shrewd development that
the Lions reportedly intend snapping up Ross Cronje’s present Bok understudy
Rudy Paige from the Bulls – a new lease on life in Jo’burg could just suit the
latter very well.
Bridesmaids in both 2016 and 2017, these Lions clearly still
fancy shifting a decisive bit closer to the Super Rugby altar next year rather
than fading into mediocrity.
A Currie Cup for the cabinet even before it? Beware of
betting too heftily against it …
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing