CLINTON VAN DER BERG, writing in SA Rugby magazine, reveals how the Lions went from Super Rugby chumps in 2010 to Currie Cup champs in 2011.
Ahead of the Currie Cup semi-final against Western Province, Golden Lions president Kevin de Klerk sat down to pen a letter to each member of the squad of 22.
To Doppies la Grange, he wrote, ‘You are one of those rare players who can turn a game … but we haven’t seen the Doppies factor for a while. We need it.’ To Elton Jantjies, he wrote that he believed he could become the best flyhalf in the world and that he needed to continue working hard on the basics.
And so he went.
Such was his painstaking attention to saying the right things, it took him five hours.
For De Klerk, the original lion king, it was a matter of honour to be associated with the Lions of 2011. Indeed, when they followed up a week later with their rousing Currie Cup title triumph against the Sharks, he was beaming.
They had come through tortured times and he had inherited a mess, but here was growth at its most resplendent.
Exactly 40 years before, he had made his first start for Transvaal, the Rooibonte. In the ensuing years he had watched despairingly as the grand empire built by Louis Luyt in the 1980s slowly crumbled.
De Klerk, who earns his money in the demolition business, is central to the Lions narrative because he is such a core part of their revival. He wasn’t motivated by the gravy train, the free tickets or the headlines. What motivated him was history.
‘I grew up in Rosettenville, the son of a miner,’ he recalls. ‘I was always guaranteed a fight on the way home – and that was usually with the strongest girl.
‘I played rugby because I loved it. My first game for Transvaal in ’71, I locked alongside my hero, Piet Botha. I always appreciated what administrators and coaches did for me.’
That same year he was in the side that drew with Northern Transvaal in the Currie Cup final. He would go on to play many more games for Transvaal and later shared in a Springbok series triumph against the All Blacks. Lions blood courses through his veins.
Many factors contributed to the Lions’ ascendancy this year, but arguably one of the most important was the very first issue De Klerk tackled when he assumed the presidency in 2009.
‘I needed to get the team ethos back. We were very fragmented – practising in Randburg, gyming in Bryanston and then playing at Ellis Park.’
The point was that the team was literally and figuratively all over the place. And it showed as they became a laughing stock.
De Klerk’s philosophy was that the Super Rugby and Currie Cup sides were the shop window to the union. But the window was muddy, tatty, embarrassing.
‘We didn’t have the money … we had to farm with what we had. There was talk of unloading Derick Minnie and Michael Killian and I said no. They needed encouragement and belief.’
The next thing he did was work on morale, among the team and the administrative staff.
‘The first thing I did was pull the dynamics together – coaching, training, motivation – and helped elevate the spirit among the staff, the executive committee, the board and the trust. I involved equity partners too, but that backfired.’
De Klerk still hosts a bi-weekly session with his staff over tea and biscuits.
‘The improvement in morale has been phenomenal,’ he says, stressing that any success achieved has been the result of a collective effort.
‘Among the team, I wanted to bring back the culture of old, how we used to sing songs and tell rugby stories.’
In De Klerk’s first few months, Jake White’s ‘Winning Way’ was brought in, as was Dick Muir. The results were mixed, but one happy spinoff was that Muir recommended coach John Mitchell to the union.
De Klerk liked the New Zealander the instant he met him.
‘His demeanour, attitude and philosophy were just right. Take my word for it: there isn’t a better technical coach in world rugby and there is no way I would allow him to be poached by the Springboks. He is with me until 2013, at least.’
Mitchell arrived with the reputation of being a straight shooter. His direct style had won him few friends in Perth, where he was the founding coach of the Western Force, and he was known for wielding the big stick.
By all accounts, Mitchell’s players aren’t his biggest fans, but De Klerk likens that to his days in the army. ‘I hated my corporal, but I was never fitter in my life.’
The Mitchell method isn’t for everyone. The Force team ultimately rebelled, but the Lions were different, responding to his strong sense of order and discipline.
‘I think it’s because South Africans grow up with a deep respect for their elders and leaders,’ says De Klerk.‘John talks to the cause. Hy dra nie doekies om [he doesn’t beat around the bush]. There are lots of teams where it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. You can’t become friends with your coach. John has no problem saying, “Listen pal, you’re not cutting it.”’
One moment during the Super Rugby season perfectly demonstrated his attitude. After losing 34-30 to the Chiefs in a classic game, there was a feeling that the Lions had done well. Mitchell wouldn’t hear of it.
‘We let this one slip. I’m not interested in people praising one another because they came close to winning.’
It’s an attitude recognised by Josh Strauss, the piratical figure who became a lightning rod for the team’s fortunes.
‘The talent was always there; the coach just managed it better. He instilled discipline and he made us choose core values. The guys he finished with are the guys who can handle it, who can take the criticism.’
Strauss and La Grange addressed the team during the captain’s run on the eve of the final. Their message was that they had taken so many pot shots from the media and supporters that nothing the Sharks did could blow them off course. When the players were handed their match jerseys, the number ‘9912’ was embroidered on, to represent 1999, the last time they had won the Currie Cup, and the dozen years since.
Part of what made Mitchell so successful was the training team he assembled. Wayne Taylor of New Zealand, his conditioning coach, is a stickler for fitness. He got stuck in. Even now, he says they are three years off where they ought to be physically.
Backline coach Carlos Spencer’s reputation precedes him, suffice to say that he hates losing. Despite his quiet presence, he lets the team know exactly how he feels. It was Jantjies who earned the plaudits after scoring 24 points in the final, but less dwelled upon was the bag of tricks Spencer endowed him with. The jinks, the subtle touches and the clever kicks are straight from the Spencer manual.
Then there was the quiet, brooding presence of Johan Ackermann, who fired up a pack of forwards that could by no measure be called outstanding. But JC Janse van Rensburg, Bandise Maku, Franco van der Merwe and others were like a band of brothers who stuck together and fought together.
Elsewhere, you only had to look at the form of players like La Grange, Strauss, Michael Bondesio, Minnie and Jaco Taute, a group of renegades, aspirants and nearly men, to realise that Mitchell’s great gift was his ability to draw the very best out of them.
But the Lions’ journey to Currie Cup success wasn’t without potholes. The fallout with their equity partners was damaging and there was also the messy departure of Jano Vermaak, one of De Klerk’s great regrets.
‘To lose him was a helluva blow, but then Bondesio came in and injected a tempo we never had. Watching every player develop was a thrill, but a particular highlight was JC Janse van Rensburg. He has the heart of a lion despite not being physically imposing. It’s hard to dwell on individuals, there were so many. Michael Rhodes, Elton, Josh Strauss, Franco … I saw Franco walking down the tunnel the other day and told him, “Now you’re starting to look like a lock, my mate.”’
Notwithstanding the difficulty in signing new players – ‘You don’t just pull them off shop shelves,’ says De Klerk – he believes they are well set to approach the new Super Rugby season with greater confidence. There is no hubris surrounding their Currie Cup win, just the certainty that they need to build on it.
‘I must reiterate that the victory belongs to the players,’ says De Klerk. ‘We were behind the scenes. All glory to them.’
The success in the Currie Cup will doubtless help attract players, as it did in early November when a number of new signings were announced, including the Cronjé brothers (Guy and Ross), Stephen Greeff, Callie Visagie and Hendrik Roodt. Mitchell will doubtless be shopping for more.
There’s no outlandish claim to cracking the Super Rugby play-offs, but De Klerk says he would be disappointed if they didn’t finish in the top half. The last year was pock-marked by what-could-have-beens, but with many young players now entering their third season of Super Rugby, the expectations are rooted in realism. ‘We’ve helped stabilise the rocky ship and they feel it.’
Right at the top is preserving the status of the Lions as Saru ponders how to make six go into five for the 2013 Super Rugby season. De Klerk won’t tolerate talk of the Lions being removed or merging with the Cheetahs.
‘It’s been tough, but I’m going damn nowhere. I won’t allow these doors to close.’
– This article first appeared in the December issue of SA Rugby magazine. The January-February issue is on sale now.