Super Rugby

Why Swys de Bruin's plan for Gianni Lombard could prove a major Lions blessing

Gianni Lombard (Getty Images)
Gianni Lombard (Getty Images)
  • Gianni Lombard, one of SA's best fullbacks at school, was now fortuitously switched to flyhalf by Swys de Bruin when he arrived at Ellis Park.
  • With Elton Jantjies almost moving overseas last year, depth in the position at the franchise has come into focus.
  • The 22-year-old recounts how a serious knee injury, that has sidelined him for a year, will make him better.

The Lions hierarchy never underestimated the importance of Gianni Lombard's emergence as a senior professional player, but last month's 'opt out clause' transfer window placed it squarely into focus.

French club Agen's potential courtship with Elton Jantjies came uncomfortably close to reality and his most experienced deputy, Shaun Reynolds, did manage to complete a move to Europe.

Had the Lions skipper left, Ellis Park's first-choice flyhalf would've been a 22-year-old with six Super Rugby caps behind his name.

At least now, Lombard - who boasts an excellent pedigree at junior level as a SA Schools and Junior Springbok playmaker - can gradually settle into his role as Jantjies' annointed successor.

It's a dyamic both men seem comfortable with.

"Elton's definitely been a mentor to me," Lombard told Sport24.

"I've learnt a lot from him since I've moved to Johannesburg. The thing that's stood out for me is how he continually puts me at ease. He keeps on telling me how much faith he has in me to grow as a flyhalf and that naturally inspires me to work harder. It's also easy to listen to a player like him because he's such great role model on and off the field."

Ironically, the Lions could've been in a bigger pickle had it not been for former head coach Swys de Bruin's foresight to shift him to the No 10 jersey.

The rookie from Worcester, who's slimmer than Jantjies but about the same height, lit up the junior scene at Paarl Boys' High as a playmaker and excellent goal-kicker, but did so with the extra space afforded naturally to a fullback or wing.

Clearly believing his organisational and creative abilities might be wasted in the wider areas, De Bruin wanted him in the thick of things.

"He proved the catalyst and encouraged me to start playing at 10 for the junior teams, which helped in terms of adapting," said Lombard.

"I definitely want to make flyhalf my specialist position now, I really enjoy the responsibility and the challenge of continually having to refine one's decision-making."

Promisingly, there were two specific instances where Lombard backed up his commitment to stepping up.

There was last year's memorable injury-time penalty that secured the Lions a nailbiting 36-33 win over the Rebels, a beautiful strike that he drew expertly.

"The magnitude of that kick was at the back of my mind, but I felt I was prepared to take the tee. The key was to view it as any other kick, to just stick to your routine. I'm more than willing to expose myself to such pressure situations and it helped that my teammates had faith in me," he said.

Lombard also performed well with Jantjies as a 10-12 combo in an unexpected but deserved victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton, an occasion soured by the knee injury that has kept him on the sidelines for a whole year.

While he was anyway only earmarked for a return to competitive action last month, local rugby's cautious and gradual return-to-play admid the Covid-19 crisis probably will suit him and his body ideally.

Such a serious injury setback also does wonders to any young player willing to adopt the right attitude.

"I was obviously heartbroken initially, but I realised quite quickly there was a bigger picture to consider. I have more appreciation for the game now. I've grown as a person," said Lombard.

"When you're stuck in the proverbial desert before entering the oasis, you become stronger. I'm far more patient now and will never consider myself bigger than the game itself. Things can change in seconds."     

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