Young Lions to come of age
Although his side is often described as promising yet inexperienced, John Mitchell believes that the stability and continuity that has been created in Johannesburg will bear fruit for his young Lions in the Currie Cup Final this weekend.
Mitchell made his move to the city of gold at the start of the Currie Cup last year when he took over from Dick Muir, and that campaign saw them narrowly miss out on a semifinal spot despite playing some attractive rugby which gave plenty of people hope for a revival of their fortunes in 2011.
The Kiwi coach kept a core of talented young players together but they battled in the Super Rugby competition this year, which was quite a steep learning curve as they suffered a number of narrow defeats and spent most of the season languishing near the bottom of the table.
Despite their poor showing in Super Rugby, Mitchell largely kept faith in his players and the game he wanted them to play, and that translated into a dominant Currie Cup season which saw them lose just three games and secure top spot with one game to spare before the play-offs.
The Lions were at somewhat of an advantage seeing as Mitchell had virtually the whole Super Rugby squad at his disposal for the Currie Cup, but they must be given credit for making that advantage count after what was quite a demoralising Super Rugby competition.
One of the most impressive aspects of their table-topping effort in the Currie Cup has been the fact that they have managed to win the tight games, which is a vital attribute for any side that wants to be competitive and something that they could not seem to do in Super Rugby.
The old cliche goes that both winning and losing become habits, and it was proven by the Lions' performances in the two competitions they have been involved in this year. But what was the secret to turning things around the way they did?
Mitchell believes that his side is now reaping the rewards of a long process during which continuity and consistency have been key.
He told this website: "People don't really understand the growth of this side, at the end of the day this side is almost three campaigns old, so by having consistency in our coaching and our operations and consistency in our selection and continuity in our programme and our method I guess you create ability and ultimately you have got a better chance of achieving team coherency.".
The former All Blacks boss laid the groundwork in the Currie Cup last year, which saw the Lions employing their by-now familiar style of playing to space and competing for the ball at every opportunity.
He took the 'promising' outfit with their bold new approach to the next level in the Super Rugby competition, and they bumped their heads, learing more than a few valuable lessons along the way.
The Springbok-less Currie Cup this season gave the Men from Johannesburg a perfect opportunity to build some confidence after navigating the rocky road of Super Rugby and this weekend they will get an opportunity to prove that they can mix it with the big boys when they take on the defending champions on their home turf.
By beating a Western Province team full of Bok stars in their semifinal last week, the Lions showed that they are maturing as a unit thanks to their unique blend of talent, new-found confidence and fierce commitment. Mitchell, however, is very aware that they have not won anything yet and pointed out that playing well last week will not help them against the Sharks.
"Last week's contest is irrelevant, this is a new one and we will be focused on what we need to do. As much as game strategy is important it will come down to our attitude and our will," he said.
The last time any team won the Currie Cup away from home was when the Cheetahs snatched victory from the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in 2005, but that fact holds no comfort for Mitchell who is adamant that it will take an intense performance in order to end the 12-year trophy drought in Johannesburg.
"I'm not big on history, the only history that motivates us is the fact that it has been 12 years since we won [the Currie Cup] away and 61 years since we won at home.
"All we are focusing on is the now. So we don't need the past to be of any help to us because it won't be any help on the day," he explained.
The reality is that the Lions are up against a quality Sharks team on Saturday who can beat anyone if they turn it on, but whether they win or lose the Lions' development has been fascinating to witness and if they continue on their upward curve then they could take their place as a powerhouse of South African rugby once more.
By Michael de Vries