Much has been said of the amazing turnaround of the Leicester City in English Premiership Football, but the rise of the Emirates Lions in Super Rugby is not far behind.
The Rise of Emirates Lions in Rugby
They may have fallen at the final hurdle and lost to the Hurricanes in the 2016 Super Rugby Final, but their story does have some of the fairy tale element that reminds us of Leicester Fox City. Leicester were close to relegation in last year’s English Premier League. They staved off relegation and returned this season to win the League against all odds.
The Lions were actually relegated and ended up playing in the Final of the world’s toughest regional completion in their third competitive year after returning.
Aside from winning the Super 10 tournament in the amateur era in 1993, the Lions have always had a tumultuous history in Super Rugby. Their history over the last ten years reads as follows:
Emirates Lions in Super Rugby
2006: Played 13 games, won 2 and lost eleven playing as the Cats, a combination of the Lions and the Cheetahs. Ended 13th out of 14.
2007: Played 13, won 5 and lost 8. Ended 12th out of 14.
2008: Played 13, won 2, drew 1, lost ten. Ended 14th out of 14.
2009: Played 13, won 4 and lost 9. Ended 12th out of 14.
2010: Played 13, lost 13. Ended 14th out of 14.
2011: Played 18, won 3, drew 1 and lost 12 (Byes counted as games). Ended 14th out of 15.
2012: Played 18, won 3 and lost 12 (Byes counted as games). Ended 15th out of 15.
2013: This was a horror year for the Lions. The South African Rugby Union (SARU) had promised National Government that they would ensure that top flight rugby would be reintroduced to the Eastern Cape Province. This was a promise which they had been unable to deliver on since 2008 and were eventually forced to deliver on this promise. They made the commitment that the last placed South African Super Rugby franchise in 2012 would be replaced by the then Eastern Province Kings. The Lions were relegated and had to make do with games played against lesser known opponents, outside of the public spotlight. They won their place back in Super Rugby after a promotion/relegation series against the self-same Kings, which they won courtesy of points difference after each team claimed an away victory.
2014: Played 16, won 7 and lost 9. Ended 12th out of 15.
2015: Played 16, won 9, drew 1 and lost 6. Ended 8th out of 15.
2016: Played 15, won 11, lost 4. Ended 2nd out of 18. Lost in the final to the Hurricanes.
The 2016 Campaign
There will always be question marks over “that” decision to send an understrength team to Argentina to face the Jaguares. They did not deliver the single point that was required to ensure that the Lions ended top of the table to ensure a home ground advantage for all playoff games, but coach Johan Ackerman gambled on keeping his squad fresh, injury free and with less travel accumulated in their bodies.
The culture that has been developing at the Lions over the last four years has been something more than a little alien to South African Rugby. Pick and drive around the fringes, driving mauls and bashing up centre field with pods of forwards has not been the staple of this Lions team. Players have been allowed to play the situation in front of them instead of reverting to the structured game plan we have become so accustomed to.
In terms of their squad, the Lions have not used the cheque book to contract marquee players. Instead, they have stuck with the players who stuck with them during their worst year (2013) and have started to supplement their Super Rugby and Currie Cup squads with players coming through their junior structures. Their junior teams have also been increasing in quality and competitiveness over the last few seasons, something which has been a bit of a weakness in previous years.
Focusing on the Right Players
Players that are contracted from outside also seem to fit a certain profile. Not a headline player, but one that has untapped potential. We would go as far as to say, that profile can be extended to a level of commitment to the jersey and the team. If a player views himself as bigger than the jersey and the team, he need not apply.
There is a lot that all South African rugby teams can take out of the Lions story, no matter what level they play at. Let’s take a look at some of the lessons the Lions have taught us:
- Success cannot be taken for granted, it requires hard work.
- The wheel turns and no team is guaranteed success.
- Coaches should not be fearful of taking a new direction if they believe in it.
- A high tempo game plan is not the sole domain of New Zealand teams.
The Example to other Franchises
The reality is that the Lions re-entered Super Rugby with no Springbok players in their squad. Nine Lions players have been included in the Springbok squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship. None of these have been bought out from other franchises.
It is now up to the other South African franchises to reflect on their own performances in Super Rugby over the last two years, question the way they approach the game and consider the commitment of their players to the team jersey.