Sport / Columnists

Heinz Schenk
3 minute read
6 Mar 2019
7:35 am

Lions need to stop ‘inspiring’ and start winning

Heinz Schenk

Swys de Bruin and co need to stop their unbalanced view on the game before it's too late.

Malcolm Marx (L), Swys de Bruin during the Emirates Lions Team Announcement at Emirates Airline Park on February 28, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images)

There’s a memorable line in the Hollywood adaptation of Moneyball, the groundbreaking account of how baseball underdogs the Oakland A’s overcame a pitiful budget by using data to buy underrated players.

Needless to say, they were wildly successful in terms of results.

Early in the film, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) and his scouting team are in a serious discussion over how they’re going to replace their star first baseman, Jason Giambi.

ALSO READ: ‘Feeble’ criticism on Lions’ depth ‘irritates’ Swys

“Is there another first baseman like Giambi?” Billy asks.

“No, not really,” one of the scouts answer timidly.

“And if there was, could we afford him?”

“No.”

“Then what the f**k are you talking about, man?!”

It’s actually an unbelievably poignant moment, one that neatly illustrates the then seemingly hopeless situation and Beane’s frustration.

That cracking line is very much applicable to the Lions at the moment, especially after last weekend’s beating at the hands of the Bulls.

To be honest though, it didn’t come up again until I read this quote from coach Swys de Bruin in the aftermath.

“I’ll always back the guys, win or lose, but we’re not playing to win or lose. We’re playing to score tries and two tries were simply not enough.”

It’s a statement that makes you want to cringe.

“Then what the f**k are you talking about, man?!”

Context is important in this debate.

The Lions’ five-year journey to becoming South Africa’s leading Super Rugby franchise has been as much spiritual as it’s been rugby-related.

Coaches Johan Ackermann and De Bruin are both deeply religious and together with the union’s other leaders formulated a strategy whereby players aren’t only recruited in terms of their ability to adapt to the team’s attacking style of play, but also their personal values.

It’s worked brilliantly on both fronts … until now.

Yet while personal values are entrenched, rugby evolves.

De Bruin’s Lions are lagging behind because they’re still dreaming about their candy-flossy “vision” of scoring tries, tries and tries at the expense of common sense.

Don’t believe me?

12 July 2017: “We only play rugby for two reasons – to score tries and to inspire people.”

16 July 2018:  “We want to play an exciting brand and to score tries. We (and the Crusaders) both have 77 tries‚ if we had one more it would have been great.”

No-one denies that the Lions’ adventure since 2013 has been endearing and inspiring.

But hell, this isn’t a bunch of underdogs anymore, a David trumping Goliaths weekly.

The Lions have reached three consecutive Super Rugby finals.

They’ve done remarkably well to keep their spine – think Warren Whiteley, Ross Cronje, Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan, Lionel Mapoe, Kwagga Smith, Andries Coetzee and Ruan Combrinck – intact.

And they’ve contracted some of the best youth players in the local game.

Those are NOT the hallmarks of a team punching above its weight.

The Lions are a big union and big unions aim to win trophies.

One of the more flabbergasting aspects of De Bruin and his coaching staff’s philosophy is that they clearly have the capacity to adapt.

The opening weekend’s victory over the Jaguares was brilliantly conceived – one where flashy, crowd-pleasing rugby was sacrificed for winning rugby.

Super Rugby teams are gradually re-embracing the vintage Springbok model of a powerful pack of forwards, aggressive defence and a skillful backline capable of capitalising on opportunities when they are worth taking, NOT running willy-nilly from everywhere on the field.

It’s the way of the Crusaders.

The Bulls showed it at Ellis Park.

And the Brumbies trampled on the Chiefs championing that blueprint.

Just inspiring fans is no longer enough for the Lions.

They need to start playing winning rugby.

And anyone who says “winning isn’t everything” doesn’t deserve to complain about the Lions’ results.

Heinz Schenk: Online Sports Editor.

For more sport your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.