Opinion: Commitment and work rate the foundation for invigorated Lions in the United Rugby Championship
The Lions of this season draw striking parallels to their most successful period, where the club reached three consecutive Super Rugby finals under the tutelage of Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin from 2016 through to 2018.
Similar to their ‘golden era’, this Lions side has no established Springboks. Instead, it is packed with young stars looking to prove a point as a unit and have done so thus far in the 2022/23 United Rugby Championship after claiming three wins from three on tour against Ospreys, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
Coach Ivan van Rooyen’s side sits in sixth place on the table with 13 points in a start that very few expected given the resources at the club’s disposal after an exodus of quality players at the end of last season, including Burger Odendaal, Vincent Tshituka and Carlu Sadie.
So how has this Lions side defied the odds and caught the eye this season?
Work rate is synonymous with defence for the Lions this season. The commitment to the collective is clearly evident in their defensive performances.
Leading this is one of the greatest defensive centres in Springbok history, Jaque Fourie, who took on the defence coach’s role during the last season and cleaned up the defensive structures of the Johannesburg-based side.
Communication has been much improved with the defensive line folding and covering the field more effectively, coupled with the trust of the inside man making the Lions significantly harder to breach this season.
The final component of their improved defence is hunger. This squad is a group of young players looking to prove a point, and suddenly pundits and fans are talking about the likes of 19-year-old flank Ruan Venter and centre Henco van Wyk because of their sheer work rate.
😍 SENSATIONAL COVER TACKLE 😍@Vodacom #URC | #EDIvLIO @LionsRugbyCo pic.twitter.com/u0guxXAIPz
— Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial_RSA) October 7, 2022
The departure of last season’s centre pairing in Odendaal and Wandise Simelane made for grim reading for Lions fans at the time. However, that has flipped on its head with the emergence of the partnership between Marius Louw and Van Wyk who have been pivotal in the Lions’ season thus far.
Louw is an import from the Sharks, who made a solid number of appearances for the Durban-based side but never achieved a significant breakthrough. However, at the Lions, he has flourished with his direct running and sound defence, whilst guiding youngster Van Wyk in his first season.
Van Wyk is a product of the Lions academy and is an outstanding athlete; incredibly fast and physical. However, the 21-year-old’s attributes transcend physical ability as the centre has shown impressive rugby IQ for a player of his inexperience by making clever reads defensively and showcasing his understanding of the laws. This was evident in his try against Edinburgh, where he released the ball after being tackled and picked it up again to break through and score a vital five pointer.
Henco van Wyk bursting into Monday’s like… 🔥@Vodacom #URC | @LionsRugbyCo pic.twitter.com/Hag5cmjNvH
— Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial_RSA) October 10, 2022
There are few better to learn from than the legendary Fourie, and this young star will certainly be a name to remember in this year’s competition.
Livewire scrum-half Morne van den Berg put in some strong performances last season by speeding up the game from the base of the ruck, sniping, and keeping defences honest. The Lion is a clever player and, at 24 years old, still has so much growth available in him.
It seemed he would be the only secure option for Van Rooyen until the signing of Sanele Nohamba, who very nearly became a Springbok before quickly falling out of favour at the Sharks behind Jaden Hendrikse and Grant Williams.
However, the former Shark has rediscovered himself at the Lions, with impressive performances and the sort of cheek scrum-halves have become renowned for. He is a competitor, a player who wants to impact the game, and between him and Van den Berg, there are solid options to count on in the lengthy season.
At pivot, Jordan Hendrikse proved his worth last season and even expanded his skill set with a brief stint on the Sevens circuit. There is no denying he is one for the future and looks quality with ball in hand, sound in distribution and secure in his kicking.
The main concern was the reliance on Hendrikse almost solely last season; however, Gianni Lombard seems to have overcome injury problems and is playing some very good rugby as he did against Edinburgh last time out. If he can stay fit, there will be even more to come as Lombard has been highly rated throughout the lower levels both provincially and nationally.
Ultimately, Van Rooyen has rotation options for both scrum-half and fly-half, which will be absolutely crucial in their season, particularly with the addition of the Challenge Cup fixtures.
It will be fascinating to see where this youthful and exuberant Lions side finish at the end of the season. Regardless, massive credit must go to the club for what has been a dream start for the Johannesburg men.
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