Lions toil through player exodus

Golden Lions coach Johan Ackermann says his team is focused on securing home-ground advantage for the Currie Cup play-offs, despite the off-field disruptions.

The Lions have been rocked with several player exits this week. Prop Pat Cilliers and utility forward Michael Rhodes have confirmed their moves to Cape Town, lock Franco van der Merwe has signed with the Sharks (on loan) and hooker Bandise Maku is off to the Kings.

Flyhalf Elton Jantjies and utility back Jaco Taute are also expected to announce loan moves next week.

These exits follow the permanent departures of loose forward Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), props Jacobie Adriaanse (Scarlets, Wales) and Caylib Oosthuizen (Free State Cheetahs), and locks Ruan Botha (WP), Paul Willemse (Blue Bulls) and Etienne Oosthuizen (Brumbies, Australia).

Despite president Kevin de Klerk’s arguments that there will be no player exodus after the Johannesburg franchise’s Super Rugby relegation – their big names are shipping off in quick succession.

However, Ackermann believes his team is not distracted by these happenings.

‘As a squad, we knew this was coming,’ Ackermann told keo.co.za. ‘We knew players would leave. We knew there would be changes. There are no hard feelings. Players need to make the best choices for their careers.

‘This is probably the last competition these guys will play together as team-mates. And in a way, that has brought the team closer together. They want to win the Currie Cup, like we did last season.’

The Lions are in a strong position to do so, especially after their 22-9 victory over WP at Newlands.

With two rounds remaining, they top the standings after winning six of their eight matches. They face Griquas in Kimberley and the Blue Bulls in Johannesburg for their final league fixtures.

Ackermann said the Lions need to win those matches to secure home-ground advantage for the play-offs, which was key during their title run in 2011.

‘The victory over WP gave us a lot of confidence as we haven’t won in Cape Town in a long time,’ said Ackermann. ‘We haven’t had continuity in selection over the last couple of weeks because of Springbok call-ups and injuries. But the guys who have stepped in have trained with the squad from day one and have filled in very well.

‘We always knew it would take a squad of 30 players to win this tournament. If we can carry our winning momentum into our final league matches, we’ll have the platform to clinch back-to-back Currie Cup titles.’

Meanwhile, Ackermann hopes there won’t be other player departures in the coming weeks.

‘We have a plan to keep our remaining top players in Johannesburg. We know they want to play Super Rugby, so hopefully they’ll be able to go on loan to other franchises and return to the Lions.

‘We will handle each case individually as every player has different terms in their contract.

‘We need a competitive squad for our fixtures in 2013, especially the Super Rugby promotion-relegation play-offs.’

By Gareth Duncan