Johannesburg - It was more with a sigh of relief than anything else that Swys de Bruin started his post-match assessment on Saturday night of his first Super Rugby win in charge of the Lions.
The relief was palpable on De Bruin’s face as his side were in high spirits after downing the Sharks 26-19 in a physical, tense and open game.
But it was more than that.
Since the departure of Johan Ackermann for Gloucester, and to a lesser extent JP Ferreira’s move to Munster to join Johan van Graan in Ireland, there has been a spectre of doubt hanging over the Lions – partly from their fans, and partly from their detractors.
It wasn’t that anyone doubted De Bruin’s credentials, but rather that the overwhelming influence of Ackermann, the coach that built the Lions and brought them back from the brink, was weighing on their minds.
It continued as the side - in their own words – went into Saturday’s game “underdone” as they kept a very low profile and had just one “training game” rather than the traditional pre-season hit outs that the others were undergoing.
Despite captain Warren Whiteley’s assurances that the side felt good and were ready for the season, there were several who doubted their abilities, and especially because of the Sharks’ good pre-season form, looked to the coastal side as favourites for the opening day.
So it can be excused when De Bruin smiled after the game and said it was “sweet” to beat the Sharks. Considering the pressure on the side before the match, the smiles couldn’t be bigger in what essentially became a test of character for the side.
“Very blessed, very pleased, very relieved. That’s the first reaction. Knowing we did go a bit underdone into this game, that was the discussions we had with our leadership group, to have another friendly or not – we just had that trial game in Secunda and then into the big one.
“We asked for character and the character came through,” De Bruin said in reaction when asked about the win.
And then, given it was the Lions fourth tough win in 12 months against the same Sharks opposition, a win that every time left opposition coach Robert du Preez less than pleased afterwards, he managed to see the lighter side of things.
“Warren is from the Bluff there, and I lived there for 12 years. I think Rudolf Straeuli still owns half of Durban still – naah just a joke,” he laughed.
“It is very sweet to beat the Sharks. I must admit. We just did, so I must admit”
De Bruin may not have been publicly questioned about his ability, but behind the scenes the questions were asked, and the doubts were there. A young coaching team - snapped up from the junior ranks and untried, untested in Super Rugby waters.
Yet on the night where De Bruin was smiling it was his lieutenants that would have been just as relieved.
Joey Mongalo, the defence coach who has built his reputation in the junior ranks, watched with glee as the Lions held out in the last 15 against wave after wave of attack from the Sharks, while Phillip Lemmer will be more than happy with the performance of the pack – especially in the scrums where they dominated proceedings.
For De Bruin it was the small margins that won the game, especially two key moments in defence at the end that involved substitutes.
“I must say the attack was lovely, our backs ran well. The forwards gave a good platform, but the last bit when Hacjivah (Dayimani) came on and stole that ball, as a youngster he doesn’t realise how good that was. The same with Marnus Schoeman there under the sticks, when he got hands on the ball, that was huge.
“When you can win those small margin balls, then we are happy.”
For all the doubt the Lions showed that even without two-thirds of their coaching top tier staff, they still are a quality outfit and the old cliché that the structures are still strong is true.
And as if to underline their move forward rather than looking backwards, De Bruin’s first game in charge announced the arrival of a new star – winger Aphiwe Dyantyi. With a try that was sublime in its execution, Dyantyi grubbered with the left foot and collected with the right arm, and showed more than once he is a talent to be nurtured and grown.
More difficult challenges await the Lions, who as last season’s finalists definitely move with a target on their backs. But given the pre-season doubts that tended to linger, De Bruin not only deserves to smile a bit, but should now have the faith back of many of those who doubted him.