When the six rugby franchises finish tallying up the spoils from last week’s Covid-19-enforced transfer deadline, it’ll be tough for any of them to beat the Lions to end up as probably the biggest losers out of the chaos.
While the Sharks, Bulls and Cheetahs would have derived degrees of satisfaction from the outcomes of the forced 21-day window period, in which players could terminate their contracts to avoid the mandatory pay cuts the industry has to go through due to Covid-19, Western Province, the Southern Kings and the Lions can’t necessarily be accused of having similar cause to feel smug.
The applause for their Warrick Gelant-sized smash-and-grab at Loftus Versfeld may still be ringing in their ears, but thanks to the way they handled the Pieter-Steph du Toit “will he, won’t he?” saga, Province have emerged as the bungling kings of a tricky period in which a seemingly flimsy grasp of contractual agreements almost lost them the World rugby player of the year.
In Port Elizabeth, the Kings may have only lost Howard Mnisi to the Cheetahs, and there’s talk about Demetri Catrakilis retiring, but there’s no saving face for the franchise or its players when it comes to the fact that they were practically a nonentity throughout what has been one of South African rugby’s wildest rides.
Yet the Lions are probably worse off because their situation is less of an embarrassment issue than it is an almost systematic regression on their part.
On the face of it, losing World Cup-winning Springbok Malcolm Marx and promising youngsters Tyrone Green and Ruan Vermaak is nothing new when you consider the illustrious names they’ve already lost to overseas clubs.
But talk that gifted former SA Under-20 centre Wandisile Simelane could follow Gelant to Western Province is indicative of other problems. Parting ways with Marx may be in keeping with what the Lions expect at the end of pretty much every season, but, in Simelane, Green and Vermaak, they’re now starting to lose players they’ve invested in – their future, if you will.
As Faf de Klerk, Franco Mostert, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and even the returned Jaco Kriel all took turns to join the procession out of Ellis Park over the years, the Lions could console themselves that they’d invested in their future by recruiting gifted youngsters like Simelane, Green and Vermaak, with the likes of Hacjivah Dayimani, Gianni Lombard, Asenathi Ntlabakanye et al in their midst.
But now the talent raid appears to have begun even before the youngsters have delivered for the Lions. There are reasons the Lions have gone from a destination of choice for local players to something approaching a sitting duck for those looking to beef up their playing stock.
Playing in three consecutive Super Rugby finals (2016, 2017 and 2018) and not winning any of them is one, and the other is how juniorised their coaching staff has become since they lost Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin.
For years, the Bulls attracted talented but ill-fitting players to Pretoria simply because they’d won all three of the Super Rugby finals they’d been to. They probably still do. Looking at the Lions’ young coaching staff, players want a sure thing when it comes to their coaches, not to grow alongside people who are also still finding their feet.
The news that the Lions also lost Ellis Park Stadium managing director Edgar Rathbone, who signed as the Bulls’ new chief executive officer, during the national lockdown probably escaped notice, but he has a massive reputation as a dynamic player in the commercial space.
The new setbacks shouldn’t exactly end up in relegation from Super Rugby, as was the case seven years ago. But alarm bells are ringing about exactly which direction they are headed.
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