Super Rugby

Why the Lions have more reason to empower their youngsters than others

Manny Rass. (Getty Images)
Manny Rass. (Getty Images)
Mark Kolbe
  • The loss of two 22-year-olds in Tyrone Green and Ruan Vermaak might've been a shock to the system, but the Lions have an enviable stock of rookies to still build their future on.
  • Contracting some of the best junior players in the country has been the cornerstone of the franchise's approach to ensuring future prosperity and a substantial group of that drive have now graduated to the senior squad.
  • That places some pressure on the coaching staff of Ivan van Rooyen and co, who wouldn't want to waste the opportunity to unearth those players' peak potential.

Despite the losses of Tyrone Green and Ruan Vermaak, the Lions are planning to continue their concerted drive towards empowering their youngsters at senior level.

It might come across as innocuous, but at Ellis Park it's a prominent issue for a very specific reason: the franchise's group of rookies is more gifted than most.

That's predominantly the legacy of Bart Schoeman, the Lions' former high performance manager, who spearheaded a drive - with a faithful ally in CEO Rudolf Straeuli - to contract some of the best junior players in the country.

The reasoning was sound.

If Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin could cultivate loyalty among their underrated but ultimately accomplished class of 2016 to 2018, then tying down an even more talented next generation would deliver an increased return on investment.

"We're really blessed with a great bunch of juniors. They form part of a very good overall squad," Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions' head coach, told Sport24.

On paper, that's a bit of an understatement.

Mannie Rass, Gianni Lombard, Wandi Simelane, Len Massyn, Reinhard Nothnagel, Carlu Sadie, PJ Steenkamp, Nathan McBeth, Asenathi Ntlabakanye and Francke Horn are all Junior Springboks currently in the senior squad.

Meanwhile, other rookies with fine pedigrees at age-group level like Vince Tshituka, Ruben Schoeman, Louritz van der Schyff and Hacjivah Dayimani are also present.

What the departures of Green and Vermaak highlighted is not the shock of losing two pillars of the future, but rather the thought of the Lions undoing all the hard work of assembling that group of age-group graduates by not helping them reach their peak potential.

However, with Covid-19 laying waste to South African rugby's already tight player budgets, the franchise has a rare opportunity of developing stars while keeping finances under control.

"It's a great challenge for us. We're back in a cycle where we have to craft a team that will stay together for the next two to three years," said Van Rooyen.

"We've really tried to remind our rookies constantly that the best is yet to come, that they are going to be afforded opportunities to become permanent fixtures in the team. We have the ability to make those players really special exponents.

"We've been privileged to have helped produce something like 26 Springboks over the past few years. We're maintaining that outlook."

But the youngsters can't do it on their own.

"That's why it's so important to balance that with the presence of experienced guys too. I believe we've done that," said Van Rooyen.