Restoring a Pride

Every sports cliche comes to mind when I want to start writing about the current Lions Rugby team. From rags to riches. A Cinderella story. Underdogs. Hard work pays off. There is no I in team. Went back to the drawing board. They wanted it more. Putting in the hard yards. All cliches, but all very applicable to this current pride of Lions.

A pride of Lions is couldn’t be a more apt description. I grew up in Lions country and although I’m a Bulls supporter at heart, I know very well the pain and anguish my mates have gone through, sticking with their team through the darkest of days. The pride is restored and I couldn’t be happier. Celebrate your team guys, rub it in our faces and don’t stop bragging! The Lions are currently building a legacy, and we look back to the legacy of the Golden Lions Rugby Union.

The First Century 1889 – 1990

The Transvaal Rugby Union was formed in Johannesburg in 1889 after members of different clubs around Johannesburg decided to form a central union in the region. Before they were known as the Lions, the Transvaal team were simply know as the “Rooibontes”, referring to their white jerseys with red hoops. In 1920, Western Transvaal broke away to form a separate union and in 1938, Northern Transvaal was formed in Pretoria. This didn’t stop Transvaal from becoming one of the strongest provincial teams in South Africa, in fact, they won their first Currie Cup in 1922 and they also won the very first Currie Cup Final in 1939 against Western Province at Newlands. Further Currie Cup wins would come in 1950, 1952 and 1972. Although they only won the Currie Cup five times in their first 100 years, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Transvaal were one of the toughest teams to beat and they were consistently one of the strongest provincial teams in South Africa.

Over the years the Golden Lions have produced some of he greatest Springboks including Dougie Morkel, Jan Stegman, Lukas Strachan, Tony Harris, Jan Lotz, Okey Geffin, Hennie Muller, Wilf Rosenberg, Martin Pelser, Avril Malan, Syd Nomis, Kevin De Klerk, James Small, Hennie le Roux, Francois Pienaar, Andre Vos, Joe van Niekerk, Jaque Fourie and Bryan Habana.

The Glory Days

Sharks fans will quickly point out that their team was dubbed “The Team of the 90’s”,¬† but the Lions were just as dominant during that decade. Louis Luyt was elected as President of the then Transvaal Rugby Union in the early 80’s. He immediately rebuilt Ellispark to the 63 000 capacity fortress it is today. But with an under performing team, suite sales didn’t go as planned and the Union was soon in financial trouble. But things slowly started to turn in 1986 when Transvaal reached the final of the Currie Cup. They again featured in the 1987 final, but again lost. Some tweaks to the team and management at Ellispark ensured the Union built on that momentum and in 1991 they played Northern Transvaal in the Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld. Transvaal finished the season on top of the log, but lost out to an experienced Bulls team. In 1992, under the captaincy of Jannie Breedt and the coaching of Harry Viljoen, Transvaal vowed to rectify their bad run in Breedt’s final season. The fairy tale end wasn’t to be and a tearful Breedt said goodbye to SA rugby after Theo van Rensburg missed a penalty late in the final against Natal at Ellispark.

Transvaal 1993 Super 10

But the foundations had been laid for success. In 1993 a large group of players left Northern Transvaal to seek greener pastures south of the Jukskei. Among these players were Uli Schmidt, Hannes Strydom, Phillip Schutte, Gavin Johnson, Johan Roux, Charles Rossouw, Heinrich Rogers, Rudolph Straeuli and later on Gerbrand Grobler. But the ace up Luyt’s sleeve was the recruitment of the Pretoria Harlequins coach, Kitch Christie. Kitch soon brought discipline to the Transvaal team and brought Schmidt with him. Both would be key to Transvaal’s success in 1993. Christie was supported by Ray Mordt as assistant and they ensured that Transvaal finally lived up to expectations.

Francois Pienaar 1993

Only the Blue Bulls of 2009/2010 could rival the Transvaal team of 1993/1994 in terms of trophies won. In 1993 Transvaal became the first ever Super 10 winners by defeating an All Black laden Auckland team at Ellispark in a closely contested final. Two Uli Schmidt tries sealed a famous 20 – 17 win. Transvaal also won the M-Net Night Series, Lion Cup and the Currie Cup in 1993. The Currie Cup triumph was particularly sweet as the last time they won the coveted trophy was way back in 1972 under Piet Greyling’s captaincy. Transvaal outplayed a strong Natal team in the last 10 minutes of the 1993 final and Schmidt again sealed the victory with a try in the corner after a smart box kick by Johan Roux.

Transvaal 1994 Currie Cup

Pienaar’s men were flying high and they continued that form into 1994. They handed Northern Transvaal their biggest loss in a Currie Cup game, winning 57 – 13. I still recall that game. I was 12 at the time and went to the game with my dad. We came home dejected after the heavy defeat and my mom decided it would be a great idea to make Transvaal flags and stick them to the door of my room. I wasn’t impressed and I still hold a grudge. But that team was good. Really really good. Another four trophies were won in 1994, the M-Net Night Series, the Percy Frames trophy, the Lion Cup and again, the Currie Cup. Transvaal scored a record 56 points in the final, a record that still stands today. Eight trophies in two years – not bad. Transvaal were the best provincial side in the world in 1993 and 1994. The core of the Springbok team that won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 came from Transvaal and of course, by 1995, Kitch Christie was entrusted with leading the team to glory. Chris Rossouw, Balie Swart, Hannes Strydom, Kobus Wiese, Francois Pienaar, Hennie le Roux and Japie Mulder all played in that final.

1994 All trophies

When Kicth Christie left, things went quiet in Johannesburg. Some of the senior players either retired or lost form. Pienaar was sacked as Springbok captain and left for Saracens. They were competitive between 1995 and 1999, but didn’t set the world on fire with their play. Young players like Joe Gillingham, Jannie van der Walt and Louis van Rensburg started to make names for themselves, but they lacked that world class edge the team needed. In 1998, the decision was made to merge the Lions and the Cheetahs into the Cats. A regional super team comprising players from two of the strongest unions in South Africa. But the experiment failed spectacularly and the Cats found themselves at the bottom of the Super 12 table in 1998 and 1999.

Time for Louis Luyt to step in again. He recruited former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains as new head coach of the Lions and the Cats. The Lions also recruited senior players like Rassie Erasmus, Werner Swanepoel and Chester Williams to bolster their ranks. It worked. The Golden Lions won the Currie Cup again in 1999 and in 2o00 and 2001, the Cats reached the Super 12 semi finals. The Lions won three Currie Cup titles and a Super rugby title between 1993 and 1999. Natal won four Currie Cup titles during the 90’s, so it’s a toss up who the team of the 90’s really was.

Lions 1999 Currie Cup

The come down

It’s called a come down for a reason. You are flying high as the top team in South African rugby and then it all goes pear shaped. To write about all the reasons why the Lions declined so spectacularly in the 2000’s would take another couple of blog posts. They played in the 2002 Currie Cup final, but were trounced by an in form¬† Blue Bulls team. I still have this vision in my head of Dries Scholtz running over Jorrie Muller in that game. The Cats experiment failed miserably and finally, with the expansion to 14 teams, the Lions and Cheetahs went their separate ways. The impact was immediate and under Eugene Eloff’s coaching, the Lions were competitive in the 2007 Super 14 competition, even winning a couple of games overseas. They also played in the 2007 Currie Cup final, but lost to the Cheetahs, with the Springboks away on World Cup duty.

Then it really got bad. Between 2008 and 2010 the Lions plummeted to new depths and it all culminated in 2010 when the lost all their games in the Super 14 competition. John Mitchel was brought in as coach and he had some success with the team, winning the Currie Cup in 2011. It was an important win, but it needs to be taken in context. It was again a World Cup year and most top players weren’t available for Currie Cup duty. The Lions didn’t provide too many players to the national setup at that stage, and although a win is a win, it felt more like a temporary plaster on a festering wound.

Lions 2011 Currie Cup

SARU made a tough decision in 2012. The South African team that finished lowest on the combined log in Super rugby would make way for the Kings in 2013. It was the worst timing for the Lions. The players revolted against Mitchel and they wanted him gone. They got their wish and Johan Ackerman was asked to step in as interim coach for the last couple of games in the 2012 Super rugby season. It was too late to salvage the season, the Lions were out and the Kings were in.

The rebirth

What to do if you are not playing Super rugby? Well, you win the Vodacom Cup and try and play some competitive friendlies against other provincial sides. The Lions’ focus for 2013 was simple. Get back into Super rugby. That meant they had to beat the Kings in a two match promotion-relegation series and they literally scraped through. It didn’t matter, they were back. Ackerman knew he had to rebuild a broken team. They didn’t have any big name players or key Springboks, but they had a plan, they were realistic and the powers that be at Ellispark backed Ackerman to turn things around.

2013 wasn’t that long ago, so it still amazes me how this side has turned their fortunes around. The focus was on team play, supporting the guy next to you, looking for space and backing your team mates. Ackerman instilled a strong team ethos and there was no space for egos. The only way back to the top was through sheer hard work and determination. Three years ago, few people knew who Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Ruan Combrinck and Faf de Klerk were. Today, they are household names and the best in their positions.

They were competitive in the 2014 Super rugby season and deifnitely punched above their weight. They were competitive in the Currie Cup and played in the final against Western Province where they naroowly lost. They continued that form into the 2015 season, finishing 8th in Super Rugby and going unbeaten in the Currie Cup, the only time this has ever happened.

Lions 2015 Currie Cup

So here we are, the Lions are in the Super Rugby final. I hope this team can win the title on Saturday. That will be vindication for years of hard work and it will prove that rugby is a team sport. You don’t need big names or 100 caps to play good rugby. You just need a clear plan, the player’s buy in and dedication. You also need to reward form and not experience. We are obsessed with experience in South Africa and it needs to stop.

As a Bulls fan, I will always want my side to win, but this Lions team excites me in a rugby calendar that can really get dull. I love their brand of rugby, I love their players and I wish them all the best for Saturday. You have already done what no other South African side has done, so just add the cherry on the cake. You deserve it. Make us proud and restore the Golden Lions Rugby Union to the glory days of 1993 and 1994.

Here are some highlights of the Transvaal side of 1993 and 1994

Marvel at the legend that is Jaco Kriel

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