Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Swys de Bruin is increasingly making it clear than he isn’t simply a clone of his predecessor as head coach of the Lions in Super Rugby, Johan Ackermann.
Formerly Ackermann’s trusty assistant, the latest reminder of that came with his selection for the date with the modest Sunwolves at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
More interesting than who he has put into the XV for the task against the still-struggling Japanese outfit is who he has left out, really.
By naming a much-altered combination from the side which frittered away a 28-10 lead against the Blues last weekend to be pipped at the death 38-35, De Bruin, contrary to the instant reaction some critics might have, hasn’t hit any panic buttons.
Instead, by resting some individuals – including three regular members of his tight five -- he has effectively made an obvious statement that the Lions are finally going to properly target victory a week onward in Argentina (against the Jaguares) where in each of the last two seasons Ackermann debatably fielded very weakened teams.
On each occasion in Buenos Aires, the eventual tournament runners-up in both 2016 and 2017 were beaten: 36-24 last year, as early as round three, and 34-22 the year before, an especially hotly-debated and damaging outcome in the final round of ordinary season which allowed the Hurricanes to end one point ahead on the overall table (and eventually host his men in the final, which went the New Zealanders’ way).
Ackermann clearly held the conviction that a once-off trip to South America, through unfavourable time zones, was a good one to skip for some of his most prized playing assets.
He was prepared to risk the possibility of defeat – which duly happened – in defence of his longer-term goals, with maintenance of mental and physical freshness a prime part of his logic.
Last year, Ackermann did field something a bit closer to a full-strength side, although he curtailed around six regular first-teamers to the bench, and there was plenty of time left in the campaign to offset any harm in log terms caused by the result – the Lions eventually soared to top-placed finish and a home final against the Crusaders.
In the earlier instance in 2016, virtually all of his frontline squad didn’t even travel to Buenos Aires as he put out the more genuine second-stringers, right across the park.
But isn’t De Bruin only doing an “Ackermann” this weekend, then, by diluting his mix for the challenge of the Sunwolves?
No, it’s a lot different.
For one thing, he has every reason to believe that the Japanese side will be comfortably enough subdued on the Highveld, even with a slightly “experimental” Lions XV running out for the clash: by contrast, Ackermann would have been all too aware in both 2016 and 2017 that his glaringly watered-down sides were vulnerable to defeat in Argentina.
The Sunwolves have only won three matches in two completed seasons of Super Rugby – and none from three outings yet this year – and their tally of away wins is a fat zero.
His charges quite possibly chastened by let-it-slip events against the Blues, De Bruin is entitled to expect that he will still field enough in the way of heavy guns to put the Sunwolves away with plenty to spare.
But all this certainly means also, as confirmed by the press release accompanying De Bruin’s team announcement for this weekend, that the Lions are resting some seniors – among them coalface characters Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer and Andries Ferreira – with a view to maximising appetite and sharpening tools for Buenos Aires next Saturday.
And many Lions enthusiasts would brand that a pleasant change from recent history.
It is likely, too, that De Bruin will have figured that the Blues reverse in Johannesburg – unexpected, and potentially harmful to a good knockout seeding further up the road – needs to be offset by a burial of the “Buenos bogey” in a week’s time.
He will have noted that the often labouring Jaguares earned a morale-boosting triumph over the Waratahs in the last round -- and may also now knock over the visiting Reds ahead of the big date with the Lions.
Yes, thanks to De Bruin’s likely policy adjustment, finally a Jaguares v Lions tussle away from our shores looks like being the real deal …
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