‘Cash’ the route of success, Lions development reaping rewards

Ivan van Rooyen, coach of the Lions during the European Rugby Challenge Cup 2022/23 match between Lions and Racing 92 at the Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg

Call it the Lions B team or refer to them as the fringe players, but the 13-3 defeat – and their previous victory over Perpignan – exposed the coaches to new avenues in player development. Seen here: Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen. Picture: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Published Jan 18, 2024


The Lions might have returned from Montpellier with a loss scribbled down in the record books, but they arguably achieved one of their most important objectives.

Call it the B team, the second-string outfit, or refer to them as the fringe players, but the 13-3 defeat – and their previous victory over Perpignan – nevertheless exposed the coaches to new avenues in player development, while also building depth across the squad for future use: both immediate and long-term.

The luxury of sending a team outside of the regulars that can do the business and cause an upset is one that has not been afforded to the Lions in previous years.

It is another component that is slotting into the greater works that will leave the Doornfontein-based outfit in better health than before.

Good problem to have

On Wednesday, with discussions regarding security at Ellis Park the backdrop, Lions head coach Ivan van Rooyen revealed that the depth was a good headache to have.

In previous seasons, it could be argued, the coach no doubt had sleepless nights as he pondered how he was going to plug the gaps or fill the void when preferred personnel were run afoul by injury or sanction.

Now, it could be said that “Cash” will have to learn to burn the midnight oil as he attempts to rotate a bulging squad of players that can easily step in and perform with the required clout and experience.

Van Rooyen explained ahead of Sunday’s Challenge Cup clash against the Ospreys at Ellis Park (3pm kick-off): “The majority of the squad has played now. We took, more or less, the same team to Perpignan and to Montpellier. They put up two great performances.

“It leaves us with good questions that we need to answer, which is good for the squad. The training session (on Wednesday) was buzzing with intensity, with energy.

“In the bigger picture, yes, it is tough to lose, but it is good where we are currently competing in both competitions,” he added, referring to the United Rugby Championship and Challenge Cup.

It would not be unfair to state that the Lions have finally reached a point where their young players have begun the metamorphosis into seasoned campaigners, the proof of it being witnessed in real time.

Some smart transfer business has helped supplement that development, and according to Van Rooyen, created the right mentality through words and action.

The man with a plan

“We were quite deliberate in getting a little bit older heads in, especially for this season,” said the 41-year-old.

“Someone like Corné Fourie, like Etienne Oosthuizen, is a little bit more senior. We felt we needed that little bit of influence, leadership and toughness being added to the group – not just in playing, but also in training and in the language in the team room.

“In that sense, we are in a better place than last year. So, in terms of caps, it is still relatively young, but I think there is a good balance currently.

“The secret to any successful programme is at least three years together for probably 80, 90% of the squad,” Van Rooyen continued.

“You will always have plus-minus 10% going in and out, depending on age and opportunity … It is a challenge to keep them not just away from other South African franchises, but away from the pound and the yen and all of that … That is everyone’s challenge.”

Springbok-speak is also galvanising the Joburgers.

Huge potential

Henco van Wyk has been largely touted as a future Bok, while the new-age pundits on social media have been salivating at the possibility of seeing Sanele Nohamba in the green and gold. A handful of other players in the squad are receiving high praise, and excitement is growing that some of them could pose questions at a national level.

“When you start winning there is this feeling of something special happening,” Van Rooyen said.

“There are guys being mentioned in papers and in Springboks groups. That also creates a bit of energy.”

The Lions are expected to switch to their strongest 23 against the Ospreys. There might, however, be a few surprise selections, such is the depth Van Rooyen and co are enjoying currently.