People (especially ozzies) often say that Super Rugby is difficult to follow because they know little about the opposing teams, so in the spirit of adding something different to the conversation I thought I would a bit of write up Crusaders' opponents for this Saturday's Super Rugby final, the Lions.
Where are they from?
On paper the Lions represent three unions in the central north east of the country, but they are really Johannesburg based team.
So what kind of place is Jozi? Imagine London, Detroit and Kinshasa all mashed up together.
The city started as a mining town back in the late 19th century and quickly grew to be the largest city in South Africa and the its economic center. The 130-odd years since has done little change the feel of the city and everything feels like it could be replaced/abandoned tomorrow and no-one would bat an eye. Everything feels temporary.
The clearest example of this is the old CBD (where Ellis Park is situated) which used to be the most important real-estate in the country, but in the period between the late 1970's to the early 2000's it was abandoned by business and the middle-class to become crime-ridden high-rise slum. It is sad to see, but in a typical Joburg fashion the businesses simply folded up their tents and set up shop 10km further north without a hint of nostalgia for what they were leaving behind.
In general joburg can be broken up into three parts - London in the North around the stock exchange and assorted high finance types; Detroit in the east and west around the few remaining mines and factories; and Kinshasa in the south around the deserted city center and Soweto even further out.
But in all these places you will find people who are looking to make their fortunes. Whether it be fresh-faced finance graduates, or dirt poor immigrants from from other parts of Africa, they are all looking to make a buck. Joburg is a little slice of the good 'ol US of A; big, brash and dangerous.
Yeah, so? What about the rugby team?
The Lions are just the Golden Lions (previously Transvaal) in a different frock.
Despite its population and economic advantages Transvaal has historically been the third most successful union behind Western Province (Cape Town) and their northern neighbour, Northern Transvaal.
This is kinda weird though, why have they not dominated SA rugby in the same way that Auckland dominated rugby in New Zealand? I think it has something to do with the schizophrenic nature of the place. Kinshasa was never allowed at the table and London had better things to do. That left Detroit to represent the entire region. It is this aspect that I would argue still shapes the personality of the union to this day.
Nothing, and no-one, personifies the blue collar culture of the union better than the union's president during their heyday of the early nineties, Louis Luyt. Luyt was self-made man who worshiped his creator. Growing up poor in the Freestate he made his millions from fertilizer and beer before becoming president of the Transvaal Rugby Union. During his tenure the Lions built a formidable team of former Northern Transvaal players who all conveniently decided to play their rugby south of the Jukskei river (this was when shamateurism was rife). At the union also invested heavily in Ellis Park, exactly at the time when everyone else was moving away from central Joburg. This decision to double down on their downtown location was probably the start of their long decline.
Professionalism wasn't kind to the union. In a typically egotistical moment, Luyt, by then the President of SARU, arranged a marriage between the Gauteng Lions and Freestate in what should have been the strongest South African frnachise on paper, the Cats. On grass however the Cats sucked, never quite living up to their team sheet.
Well not quite never. The Cats had a uncharacteristically successful couple of seasons right at the turn of the century under a brash and abrasive Laurie Mains. They made the Super Rugby semi's in 2001 and 2002 when this still meant something. There really seems to be something about fluffybunnies and success with this team.
Between this little blip and 2012 the Lions continued to slide into oblivion. It is quite astounding how rubbish they were. Between 2003 and 2012 they only finished above second-to-last once, in 2009 when they finished 12th out of 14 teams. By 2013 they had been kicked out, and looking back it is pretty hard to justify keeping them in the competition with those sort of results.
But wasn't just the on-field performance that were poor. The union had become rotten to the core. Club rugby was dying, they were producing nearly no Springboks, those they did produce moved off to other provinces and their school league was probably the weakest in the country.
By the end of 2013, the union was all but broke and dead. The year out of Super Rugby had bankrupted the union and there appeared to be no way back.
It was around this time, that the union found some benevolent board member who were able to finance the union over until they they sorted themselves out. It is amazing to think how close rugby was to dying in South Africa's largest and richest city.
It seems like Joburg just thrives on regenerating itself just when you think it is dead.
Johan Ackerman, who took over as head coach in 2014 will deservedly receive great praise for what his team has achieved, but the rebuild actually started a little bit before that.
Between 2011 and 2013, John Mitchell was coaching the team. Unlike the other fluffybunnies mentioned so far, he didn't enjoy a lot of on-field success, but his contribution was invaluable in re-starting the union. Mitchell and his assistant coach, Carlos Spencer, changed the way that the team trained with much greater focus on improving the individual skills of the players. Absolutely vital in this regard was extracting the Lions from the general dick-waving contest that is junior rugby in South Africa.
The Currie Cup here has two junior competitions at under 19 and under 21 level that run concurrently with the senior competition. The big unions also played Vodacom Cup at the same time as Super rugby. All in all, the big unions maintain between four and five full time pro teams at any one time. The competition for young talent is silly, with WP, Bulls and Sharks all signing about thirty to forty kids straight out of high school. This obsession with big squads is terrible for the balance sheet and also for the quality of coaching that players receive once they are in the system. Under Mitchell the Lions started contracting fewer kids and started focusing on improving the few that they do sign. Mitchell's revolution has meant that the Lions have been able maximise the talent of their squad. We can only hope that the Lions continue down this track despite their new found onfield and financial success.
At time of writing the Lions are still one of the
four three original Super franchises who have never won a title. That may or may not change this Saturday, but regardless of result on Saturday, this is good time to be a Lions supporter.
They have an honest, humble, likable team under their very impressive (and unfortunately injured) captain Warren Whitely. The team is often incorrectly described as a bunch of journeymen, but that is not really accurate. They are bunch of talented players that have been allowed to flourish in an environment which should act as blue print for the other South African team in how it should be done.
Things are looking up financially, but their position will always remain precarious due to their stadium. Ellis Park is great when the crowds stream in from the suburbs, but as soon as soon as they lose momentum those same supporters will stay at home rather than running the gauntlet that in central Joburg.
It is amazing how things just seem to fix itself when things start going well. All of a sudden the Lions are again producing Springboks and their Craven Week side was crowned champions at the annual senior schools competition.
As fellow traveler I want to congratulate the Lions on what they have achieved and wish them the best of luck for Saturday.