Lions need to regain their roar

27 July 2017 - 09:06 By Brendan Venter
AIM Ruan Combrink delivers the kick during the match between the Lions and the Sharks on Saturday. File photo.
AIM Ruan Combrink delivers the kick during the match between the Lions and the Sharks on Saturday. File photo.
Image: Christiaan Kotze/AFP

The Lions will be the first to admit that their quarterfinal showing against the Sharks on Saturday was about as poor a performance as they have delivered in a long time. They seemed nervous in everything they did.

For a long time the Lions have played without expectation. They were relegated from Super Rugby and not much was expected of them when they returned in 2014. They embraced the underdog tag and played without fear of failure. In the process the Lions grew stronger and all of a sudden, having ended last year's competition as runners-up and this term as Super Rugby's top seed, there is an expectation that Johan Ackermann's men can claim the title.

Against the Sharks at Ellis Park, the Lions players, many of whom have been chosen to play for the Springboks, looked unsure and scared. The irony is that the primary reason the Lions' playing personnel were picked for the Springboks was because they weren't fearful between the four lines, expressed themselves and played with a sense of purpose. They chased their kicks with conviction, defended well and carried effectively.

For me, the issue isn't about the Lions winning or losing this weekend, because that is outcome-based, but rather about coming up with a performance they can be proud of. It's about producing a Lions-like performance. The definition of which is playing for each other, working harder than other people and performing like a band of brothers.

The injured Warren Whiteley is a loss for the franchise not only as a captain, but as a player. Everybody keeps referring to him as a leader, which is true, but they forget he makes plenty of effective tackles, carries the ball often and is also a useful lineout option.

If the Lions manage to turn this around, it would be an unbelievable achievement. The million- rand question is: Can they rediscover their magic blend? The aspect that worries me is that they substituted Elton Jantjies against the Sharks. I don't understand the rationale behind the call to pull him from the field and replace him with fullback Andries Coetzee. Just like players make mistakes, coaches are prone to strange decisions under pressure and to commit errors. Jantjies has played very well for the Lions over a prolonged period.

I would like to know if the coaches can rebuild their relationship with Jantjies, which was damaged by taking him off in the second half. The Jantjies situation is a side issue the Lions will have to address this week. It's not something that can be swept under the carpet, because much of the Lions' success has been built around trust and believing in each other.

The most important man this week will be sports psychologist Jannie Putter because the Lions' biggest challenge is mental. It's not about coming up with a different kicking strategy or driving the lineouts more. If the Lions can't shift their mindset, the Hurricanes will take control and qualify for the final. In South Africa, we're all hoping that won't prove to be the case because the Lions have been a shining rugby light.