The Lions are the fallen giants of South African rugby, but CEO Manie Reyneke tells SA Rugby magazine that they will rise again under Dick Muir.
A photo of the triumphant 1999 Currie Cup winners greets you upon entering the Golden Lions Rugby Union offices. Jannes Labuschagne and Hannes Strydom and co lifting a trophy – the last time a Lions side managed to do so. Ten long years – an eternity in professional sport.
With Louis Luyt as president during the ’90s, the Lions were the dominant South African team. In a period from 1992-1994 under coach Kitch Christie they held virtually every title on offer – a pair of Currie Cups, three Lion Cups, two M-Net Night Series titles, and the Super 10 trophy in 1993.
How things have changed. Results in the past couple of years across all teams make for unpleasant reading. The Lions came last in the 2008 Super 14 and 12th in 2009, and while they made the Currie Cup semi-finals last year they finished sixth in 2009. Dig a little deeper, and the Vodacom Cup, U19 and U21 sides haven’t yielded any silverware either. The U19s reached the final this year, but were walloped 45-13 by Free State. The University of Johannesburg have failed to make the play-offs in the Varsity Cup for two years running, and the Craven Week side hasn’t produced. From the senior side to the schoolboys, the Lions are losers.
Lions CEO Manie Reyneke is always positive, but by late October he looked a jaded figure. More poor results, the departure of coaches Leon Boshoff and Loffie Eloff, and the Jaque Fourie contract saga will do that to you.
‘It’s a stressful job, there have been many problems that I’ve had to sort out over the past two years,’ says Reyneke.
Those problems in the union came to a head with the axing of Eloff after the Super 14. After his three-year plan had failed, Jake White’s Winning Way company was employed. The Lions didn’t make the Currie Cup play-offs, but their last match of the season against Western Province provided some hope.
Now Lions supporters will wait to see if this was yet another false dawn.
The third intervention in three years came when Dick Muir was appointed as director of coaching, which includes leading the Super 14 team. He says claiming that title is the goal by the end of his three-year contract.
Various changes were implemented under White, but Muir has a different rugby philosophy. While White favours a structured, defence-orientated game (the Lions scored the sixth most tries in the Currie Cup but had the third best defensive record), Muir prefers a more expansive style.
‘We also had an expansive game plan during the Currie Cup,’ says Reyneke, ‘and we scored some good tries. I don’t think it will be such a major change.’
Reyneke stresses the involvement of Winning Way and the positive structures that were introduced in those five months – such as implementing player support systems – will not be wasted.
‘When we brought in Winning Way, we were really down and out. I would tell the coaching staff every Monday that the players were unconditioned, but we needed someone from the outside to do those tests and look at our structures. Jake brought value. He introduced many things to the union – not things we didn’t know, but things that needed to be changed. We need to be at the top again, so it was vital for this union to be cleaned out.
‘The structures were there, they were just never used properly, so we’ve reinforced them. We knew exactly what needed improvement and all those things are up and running. All we need to do is maintain them. I’ll make sure whoever is responsible for certain things does their job.’
Muir is going to be an extremely busy man, juggling not two jobs, but three. You would expect the director of coaching role to be an all-year-round job, but Muir will continue as Springbok assistant coach as well as the managing director of the International Rugby Academy in South Africa.
‘It’ll be quite easy for Dick,’ says Reyneke. ‘He’ll be Super 14 coach and director of coaching, and will look at all the structures at the union. He’ll make sure that the coaches who take the Vodacom, U21, U19 and Craven Week sides are competent. He was busy looking into all that before the Boks’ November tour. I’m confident he can manage it.’
Fellow Bok assistant Gary Gold had also worked with the Stormers, but is now set to focus solely on the national job, posing further questions around whether Muir will be able to negotiate all three roles. His former employers at the Sharks even lodged an official complaint to Saru, as they felt it would be a conflict of interest as he could entice players away from them to his current team. Muir denied this would be the case and stressed that he would manage to juggle all three jobs.
‘The Lions appointment is a natural extension of my other roles. I believe that the dual role – as the Springbok assistant coach and Lions Super 14 coach – will further enrich my position as the facilitator of the academy.’
Muir was selected ahead of 16 other applicants from across the world, beating off the challenge of his nearest competitor, Heyneke Meyer. Meyer was viewed by many as the ideal candidate to do a similar job at the Lions to what he’d done with the Bulls at Loftus – making them the all-conquering union they are today. However, he wanted an entourage of support staff.
‘The main reason we didn’t want Heyneke was because he wanted to bring a complete new structure,’ says Reyneke. ‘He wanted different personnel in a package deal of himself and seven other people. With Winning Way we evaluated our staff and there are competent people here.’
While Reyneke stresses that the structures are in place to return to the glory days of the early-90s, the main ingredient missing is quality internationals. The Lions’ only Bok of 2009, Fourie, has left, making them the only big-five union without a regular Test player. The Lions have haemorrhaged talent, but both Reyneke and Muir believe another rebuilding job is not impossible. Most of the recruiting was done in the months prior to Muir’s appointment, but Reyneke isn’t concerned.
‘Yes, a coach does make a difference in terms of who will be recruited – he does favour certain players before others – and Dick looked at all the lists. He gave input and we took his advice. There is a committee that does recruitment, where we evaluate each and every player, so it’s not just individuals’ choices. We have sent offers to overseas players, although we’re limited in the number of foreigners we can recruit, but there are also excellent South Africans in Europe.
‘The fact is there are not many Boks around who don’t have contracts. But players follow coaches, and although it won’t have an immediate effect as we are one of those unions that honour contracts, there will be players coming our way. We’ll strengthen our side and become a force.
‘We also have an abundance of young talent in this country and we’re doing many of our players an injustice by contracting them and not giving them game time.’
Another challenge facing the Lions is the pitiful crowd attendances at Ellis Park due poor results and safety concerns. Some have suggested relocating to a ground outside the Jo’burg CBD, but Reyneke believes the ailing Lions brand will only get a much-needed injection once the team starts producing.
‘You must remember this is a cosmopolitan area, it’s not as easy for us to have the same homely atmosphere as the Sharks or Bulls. There are many Stormers supporters staying in Jo’burg making their money here, and the same goes for the other teams’ fans.
‘We have excellent projects; we’re the only union in the country that gives all U7 to U18 registered rugby players in the province free season tickets. There are many good projects on the go, but once we start winning, it will change overnight.
‘The fact is I could spend R20 million on marketing and it would all be wasted if we don’t start winning on the field. Winning is marketing.’
By Grant Ball
– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine. The Jan-Feb issue is on sale now.