Super Rugby

Post-Whiteley Lions: Lean pickings in 2020?

Warren Whiteley (Gallo Images)
Warren Whiteley (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - The next Super Rugby season is increasingly likely to confirm at least one thing: the Lions' days as genuine title contenders are over.

Although a very recent generation of the Johannesburg-based franchise will be remembered overwhelmingly as "bridesmaids", it was to their enormous credit nevertheless that they reached three finals in a row between 2016 and 2018.

In a climate already weighing so powerfully against all South African franchises, given the crippling (and still only mushrooming) exodus of talent to more cash-flush foreign climes, it was a superlative effort for a quite protracted period.

So was 2019 - their first year subsequently of failing to crack the showpiece, and not even the knockout phase as a whole - simply a blip that will be corrected smartly in 2020?

You would have to be the most steadfastly optimistic of Jo'burgers to anticipate that being the case.

As things stand, the Lions would be defying substantial odds just to crack the last four of the competition, never mind actually win it - at least in its post-Super 10 guise - for the first time.

In short, the near-glory days of the late part of this decade have almost certainly gone.

A painstaking "rebuild" under inexperienced new head coach Ivan van Rooyen will instead be the order of the day - even if that is something applicable, to varying degrees, to virtually all the SA sides next year.

In the Lions' case though, their cause has been gradually aggravated by a series of unforeseen misfortunes to accompany other factors like the constant lure of foreign employment.

You might say this week's confirmation that increasingly injury-jinxed, but massively influential captain Warren Whiteley won't play any on-field part in Super Rugby 2020 (retirement likelihood thus flickers ever more brightly) was simply a cruel cherry on top, for want of a better expression, for detrimental circumstances not related to any "want-away" issues.

Apart from his famously cerebral and motivational qualities in the heat of battle, the 32-year-old Whiteley has also been the Lions' most consistently classy loose forward for several seasons, as well as one of their now discernibly shrinking stock of Springboks.

Always a fine athlete with some genuine X-factor in unstructured play, Whiteley also proved beyond doubt, as a starter in that thrilling 36-34 Bok triumph over the All Blacks in Wellington in 2018, that he was willing and highly able to get his hands dirty much closer to the coalface.

Hardly blessed with a massive arsenal of proven Super Rugby-calibre loosies, they will miss him profoundly in the 2020 competition, even if he slots into some sort of mentoring/coaching usefulness to the cause.

But the Whiteley blow really completes (they'll be hoping there aren't more, nasty curveballs?) a catalogue of events, unrelated to ubiquitous northern-hemisphere migrations that are the scourge of all SA teams, they could have done without in recent seasons.

In that respect, contemplate also the names, in no special order, of Julian Redelinghuys, Warwick Tecklenburg and Swys de Bruin.

Now 30, so at an age where a tighthead prop might instead be around his very prime, the popular-figure, low-slung scrummager Redelinghuys was cruelly forced into premature retirement by a neck injury in late 2017.

Admirable flank grafter Tecklenburg, currently 32 so potentially very much still a wily Super Rugby factor, had voluntarily - and probably unexpectedly to many - pulled the plug on his rugby career much earlier in 2017, to focus on family farm obligations.

With Whiteley confirmed as side-lined, Tecklenburg no longer active and talented Bok tearaway Jaco Kriel now on the books of former Lions mastermind Johan Ackermann's Gloucester, the Lions enter 2020 for the first time without ALL of the key, lauded three loosies who had started their first in the sequence of three Super Rugby finals against the Hurricanes in 2016.

Indeed, of that match-day 23 at the Cake Tin, the present Lions are left with only around a quarter of that group as they contemplate a new campaign in 2020.

Bear in mind that Malcolm Marx is effectively on a year's sabbatical (in Japan) from the Lions now - given the Whiteley setback, perhaps not the best time, really, to be losing their juggernaut hooker and one of few genuinely world-class customers in the Ellis Park ranks.

But then there's the unfortunate situation surrounding De Bruin, the head coach of the past two seasons, an Ackermann disciple who could well just have been coming fully into his own at the helm of things - in contrast to other SA outfits where rookie head coaches will be a pretty glaring phenomenon next season.

Instead, De Bruin's mental health concerns have prevented him from building on any foundations he may have laid at the franchise, and untried Van Rooyen has the formidable task of filling the hole in 2020.

The Lions ought to have one thing going for them, of course: their legendary squad "gees", assuming it will remain relatively undimmed, and an ability to defy negative expectation.

I am just one to admit to great lumps of egg on my face before when it comes to forecasting their fortunes in an occasionally bearish way and then being pleasantly surprised by their vibrancy instead.

Their administration is also, arguably, one of the better ones on the domestic landscape, even if we aren’t talking especially high bars on that front.

But boy, they're going to need truckloads, rather than by spade, of that spirit if they're to notably prosper next season, after a 2019 campaign that had already seen them drift out to an uncharacteristic (at the time, anyway) ninth-placed finish.

Early tip? They may do well to even emulate that place in the pecking order in 2020.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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