Age and length of CV certainly isn’t everything in judging a coach’s competence, but at the same time the difference in years between predecessor Swys de Bruin and Lions incumbent Ivan van Rooyen (around 23 years) tells you a fair bit about the latter’s inexperience at Super Rugby level.
It is one good reason why 37-year-old Van Rooyen deserves to be cut a bit of slack even as his charges were lying in a pretty unfamiliar – when weighed against recent years – 13th overall and bottom of the South African conference with a flimsy lone win to show when the competition was suspended after round seven due to the coronavirus.
Frankly, it is about what I would have expected at that bend in the road for the Lions as he began the task of painstakingly rebuilding a team infinitely less stocked in household names than the one which reached three successive finals between 2016 and 2018.
It was always likely to tough going initially on a personal basis for Van Rooyen, too, as he cut his teeth at unforgiving Super Rugby level for the first time in the hotseat this year after being overwhelmingly a strength and conditioning specialist during a decade or so on the books at Ellis Park.
He did get a short taste of the head coach berth last year, of course, under trying circumstances when De Bruin took a mid-tourney break for stress-related reasons; it caused some upheaval in a season where the gradual surrender of once-headline players was already becoming evident in their mid-table (eight wins, eight losses, no playoffs) showing.
Just look at Van Rooyen’s 2020 situation, when compared with the team which played in the 2018 Christchurch showpiece: he had to make do without all of Ruan Combrink, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen.
In additional, there was the pre-season sickener over long-time captain Warren Whiteley’s likely retirement due to injury, the similar Cyle Brink setback (and contractual release), seasoned scrumhalf Ross Cronje’s delayed start to this year, and the ongoing banned-substance allegation woes affecting livewire wing Aphiwe Dyantyi.
The Lions’ scrum, in addition, has so clearly been detrimentally affected so far in 2020 by the one-season sabbatical for behemoth Bok hooker and turnovers-engineering expert Malcolm Marx.
In the absence of a really stable set-piece - including lineouts, where “Sous” Mostert had been such a key figure – the franchise have struggled in the early part of this campaign for consistently good real estate on the field, which would make most teams vulnerable to playing second fiddle on the scoreboard.
The Lions were relatively light on tries by their customary standards at the forced break, suggesting that the Highveld outfit, on Van Rooyen’s watch, have lost a fair bit of their famed pace, inventiveness and X-factor of a couple of years back.
While one win from six is already a pretty depressing state of affairs, there are some mitigating factors for the rookie mastermind: three of their reverses have been on an Australasian tour, while uncomfortable memories will remain in
Johannesburg of Ruhan Nel’s late, late try to settle the derby against the Stormers 33-30 in the visitors’ favour back on February 15 – the Lions would be looking a tad more healthy at this point had they bagged that contest.
On the plus side, Elton Jantjies seems to have responded positively to his ascendancy to regular captain in 2020, mostly leading by example despite the team’s struggles and coming across as more assured and articulate than before in any media opportunities.
The Lions would have been well settled back on own soil from their main travels by now, had the tournament been running its conventional course, which might have been a better time, in fairness, to start gauging whether Van Rooyen was cutting it as their primary off-field plotter … but he is unavoidably downgraded quite a bit by their bilious record thus far.
Van Rooyen’s rating: 5/10
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