Johannesburg - A few weeks back when Lions coach Swys de Bruin was talking about his team success this year’s competition, he got stuck on a topic that is so close to his heart - scoring tries.
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Anyone who has been around De Bruin over the years will know that while the team victories are one thing, as attack coach under Johan Ackermann and all through his career he has had a simple philosophy - his teams must score tries.
And on the day when he mentioned it for the umpteenth time this season, his captain Warren Whiteley, sitting next to him, started to chuckle. Afterwards, when Whiteley was asked why, he made it clear - tries, tries, tries. “It matters so much to Swys,” he laughed.
De Bruin may well be heading into a game that many see as mission impossible for his side on Saturday morning. Facing the Crusaders - built around a pack that includes seven All Blacks – and who have an imposing record of never having lost a playoff game in their back yard, it is easy for the bookies, the pundits and anyone who has an inkling of knowledge about rugby to rule out the Lions’ chances of an upset victory.
There are those who feel the Lions should have thrown in the towel, taken the money for the final and never got on the plane. Few outside their base of Johannesburg probably give De Bruin’s side any hope.
But that is exactly what the Lions thrive on, and whatever the result in the final, De Bruin has already underlined his own impressive credentials as coach.
Those close to the team will remember the debate about the successor to Johan Ackermann when he decided on Gloucester rather than staying in Johannesburg.
There were those who felt that De Bruin was “only an assistant coach” and who questioned his ability to lead the Lions on from their two consecutive final appearances under Ackermann.
But De Bruin soldiered on, even when some eyebrows were raised when he appointed three under-19 coaches - Phillip Lemmer, Joey Mongalo and his son Neil de Bruin as the assistant coaches for the team.
And for a large part of the transition, it looked as if the Lions were not themselves. It looked as if they were struggling to come to terms with the changes, and the injuries they had - several in their spine - were holding them back.
Add to that the circling vultures trying to poach their players - they lost Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Ruan Dreyer during the season and several more were on the target list, and De Bruin had his hands full.
That is what makes the Lions surge to their third final even more remarkable. That a coach that was written off before the season began was able to keep the tightly-knit “brotherhood” - the Lions’ word for their own family unit, together.
And while there was always the danger that it would unravel spectacularly, the team just kept on marching on.
Much of that was to do with the fact that the newbies, the youngsters that came in stood up and were counted. And while that doesn’t always happen, it is also the sign of a healthy system in the franchise. Aphiwe Dyantyi is the most telling example that became a Springbok after only 11 games, while Hacjivah Dayimani and Marnus Schoeman made massive inroads as well, playing crucial roles.
It never escaped De Bruin that his side scored 77 tries in the regular stages of the competition and has been continuing in a similar vein during the playoffs, and he was quick to remind people of it. And while some may think it was tooting his own flute, De Bruin simply has such a passion for the attacking game that it genuinely excites him to see his team scoring tries.
And while those who may think the Lions are an overnight success, and De Bruin has stepped into the limelight, few will know he has been coaching since 1984, where he started at the George Campbell Technical High School and then Afrikaans Hoër Durban-Noord.
That journey has included Glenwood Old Boys Club, the Sharks and Griquas, before a long stint at the Sharks Academy where he coached with Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd. But De Bruin’s years of experience were put well to the use when he joined Ackermann to take over a Lions side out of Super Rugby.
He was asked how much satisfaction he had given the fact that he had been written off so much earlier in the season and De Bruin simply smiled.
“Thankful. Thank God for that, because I was down and out. Everyone said Ackers is gone and you have no chance,” he said.
“We lost our spine and we went through trials and tribulations like you won’t believe, so it is just a blessing that the brotherhood stuck together. It was one of those, it was just fantastic, backing every single guy in this team.
“It was special, especially when we heard a lot of guys would be leaving, we are losing them. They are going to Gloucester, many of them, they are going here and there. It was tough times, but that makes the character so much better. Saturday, whatever happens will be a bonus, we will just take it forward.”
De Bruin is looking forward to the challenge even though few people give them a chance.
“It will be fantastic, but as long as we score good tries, as long as we stay brothers, the win will look after itself. We aren’t chasing that. The next scrum, the next play, the next enjoyment, that is what makes memories in my opinion.”
And whatever happens on Saturday. De Bruin has already made enough memories, and proved he is the right man for the Lions.
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