Lions blueprint not a 'copy and paste'
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Jan de Koning chatted, exclusively, with Lions assistant coach Swys de Bruin about the team's extraordinary journey over the last four years.
In 2013 the Lions were watching Super Rugby from the sidelines. Saturday the Johannesburg-based franchise will feature in their first play-off match since 1995 - when they were still called Transvaal and lost in the Super 10 Final to Queensland.
Forget about the bête noire that was the Cats, which ended in an ugly divorce between the Lions (Transvaal) and the Cheetahs (Free State).
This is about the rise of a team that won the first Super Rugby tournament involving South African teams (when they beat an All Black-laden Auckland in the 1993 Super 10 Final) and then spent more than a decade in the doldrums.
On Saturday the Lions - in their third year back since their politically motivated exile in 2013 - will host the seven-time champion Crusaders at Ellis Park.
Not only are the Lions in the play-offs, they are playing a brand of rugby that is the envy of all the South African teams and a good few from Australasia as well.
The journey started in 2013, with a group of players that were all discarded by other unions.
Eight of those 'no-name brand' players are now Springboks - Julian Redelinghuys, Franco Mostert, Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Francois de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Ruan Combrinck and Lionel Mapoe.
Swys de Bruin, himself a reject from the Sharks, arrived in Johannesburg in December 2012 - charged with improving the Lions' attack and backline plays.
He warned that duplicating the Lions' blueprint for success is not just a simple 'copy and paste'.
It has required years of hard work, 100 percent buy-in from all, learning how to shift barriers, building confidence and a belief in what you do.
And in the Lions' case their axing from Super Rugby also provided them with the perfect platform from which to 'evolve' their game.
De Bruin said when they were axed from Super Rugby in 2013, they were forced into playing a series of challenge matches against lowly opposition - just to get game time.
"We could bring the style that I have always believed in and what Ackers [Johan Ackermann] knew well," De Bruin told rugby365, about a time when Ackermann assisted him at Griquas and for a period at the Sharks in the junior ranks.
"The style that I have always enjoyed, we had the chance to play that type of game against teams like Russia, Namibia and Mont de Marsan [to name but a few]," he added.
"We continued with that in the Vodacom Cup competition.
"We had time to establish a brand.
"So, in hindsight, it [being out of Super Rugby] wasn't such a bad situation."
De Bruin said the main reason why so many teams and coaches - who publicly proclaim their affinity for an expansive game - fail, is because human nature dictates that they revert to what they know best when the pressure is on.
"It is so much more than just saying it, it is a process," the Lions backline coach said, adding: "What happens with most teams is that you start playing it [an expansive game] till the first defeat, then management get on your [the coach's] case.
"All the teams will tell you they want to play this fast-paced, expansive brand of rugby. As soon as the pressure comes on they start kicking [the ball]."
Asked why most South African teams struggle, he again pointed to the long road the Lions had to walk to get where they are.
"You can change if you have 100 percent buy-in, and you train like that," he told rugby365.
"If you don't train like that all the time and you don't have everybody's buy-in, you won't succeed in playing such a game.
"We know the nature of humans are, when the pressure comes on, they return to what they know.
"And if that has been to kick in certain parts of the field, then they will kick."
De Bruin pointed to their Vodacom Cup campaign in 2013 as one of the turning points.
They had the situation where they had to beat the Limpopo Bulls with more than 130 points to qualify for the play-offs and won 161-3.
"That is where we learnt how to shift barriers," he said, adding: "We also had to go and beat the Pumas [the form team at the time] in the Final in Nelspruit with this group of players and we did that.
"We had plenty of time at a lower level to practice and play this style with the same group of players.
"We started this journey with a group of players who were rejects from other unions. I was also a reject [at the Sharks], and we were a group that had a chance to grow together."
Players unwanted by the other unions include regular captain Warren Whiteley, Julian Redelinghuys, Howard Mnisi, Ross Cronje, Robbie Coetzee, Franco Mostert, Warwick Tecklenburg, Andries Coetzee, Ruan Janse van Rensburg, Martin Muller and Ruan Combrinck.
"It comes by building up confidence and belief in what you do. Respect for each other plays a massive role - there are no egos here.
"When we started we had nothing. We lost to the Bulls B team in a friendly in Soweto Stadium in our first match in 2013."
He said they have over the years put some string value systems in place that are serving them well.
By Jan de Koning