Durban — Even before kick-off‚ the Golden Lions were up against it in the Currie Cup semifinal they lost 33-24 to the Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
Swys de Bruin‚ the Lions’ Super Rugby coach and boss of coaching affairs at the franchise‚ made a beeline for this writer and a former Springbok seated in Kings Park media centre.
He was keen to share the news that the Lions’ task had become even tougher after grizzled tighthead prop Jacobie Adriaanse was ruled out and that young Chergin Fillies would start the match.
De Bruin sought to lower expectations for his team against the brutish Sharks pack but the Lions were on the back foot long before. Their leadership has been in a state of flux this season‚ which affected the office of their president‚ head coach and even the Currie Cup captaincy‚ which changed hands from Ross Cronjé to Marvin Orie‚ back to Cronjé and then Nic Groom.
De Bruin‚ who had accompanied the team to Durban‚ was seated in the media area while his coaching team took up their customary position behind glass inside the coaches’ box.
When substitutions were called‚ De Bruin would turn to his colleagues and with hand gestures encourage the move.
The Lions have had to do things in a roundabout way because of De Bruin’s involvement with the Springboks.
He could only spend limited time with the Lions and former strength and conditioning coach Ivan van Rooyen was curiously appointed to the hot seat. De Bruin having to pull strings via remote control was not ideal.
On the field too the decision-making lines were blurred.
Scrumhalf Groom only recently took over as captain but No 8 Warren Whiteley’s return to fitness meant he was always going to play a leadership role in the heat of battle in Durban.
He was certainly the one mostly engaged in conversation with referee Marius van der Westhuizen‚ whose performance perhaps explained why he has disappeared off World Rugby’s refereeing panel.
In the build-up to the match it was explained that Groom‚ for the purpose of continuity‚ would wear the armband in Durban as Whiteley’s availability for the final‚ should the Lions reach it‚ could not be guaranteed.
Whiteley spread himself around the park‚ especially in defence‚ as the Lions spent much of the match scrambling.
As predicted too‚ young Fillies‚ and you have to feel for him‚ buckled in the scrum‚ while the Lions were bossed in collisions.
They did‚ however‚ stage a remarkable comeback after falling 23-3 behind after 41 minutes and got themselves to within two points before the Sharks sealed the match.
In defeat‚ Van Rooyen pointed to the positives.
"It is obviously a huge challenge playing an away semifinal‚ especially in Durban‚ with the wind pumping like that‚" said the coach. "Obviously it hurts.
"For the union it was a big step forward."