In Lions Country it is no longer fun to attend a braai with friends. A beer at the local is painful and it is easier to exit fan sites than to make a positive contribution. The question on everybody's lips remains a rhetorical one. What is wrong at the Lions?
Is it talent?
It is always easy to blame the players. They are just not good enough. We do not contract the correct players. These are the most common statements we hear from Lions fans. But is it true? Is it really the issue here? It is definitely true that the Lions have lost a whole host of really good players. Jaco van der Walt, Andries Coetzee, Malcolm Marx, Elton Jantjies, Trokkie Janse Van Rensburg, Dillon Smith to mention a few. Sure- these guys will make a big difference to any team, but fact is they are gone. As long as the rand is weak against other currencies, local teams will not be able to retain talent, let alone mega talent.
The core of the current team is very young, but very talented. Remember that not too long ago they won everything as junior aged players. There might be one or two positions where they lack real deal game- breakers, but in essence, the Lions have a squad of very good young players. Personally, it is my opinion that there are enough strong players in this squad to form a great core. I do not believe that the shortage of talented players is at the heart of the current Lions lack of form.
Then it has to be coaching
There is a common belief amongst supporters that the current coaching team is just not cutting it. There might be a few chinks in the Lions coaching armor but once again, I am not convinced that it is the only issue. The whole idea of this blog is not to belittle individuals, or to be insulting to individuals. I will therefore refrain from mentioning names, and stick to discussing concepts. There are great rugby brains in the current coaching set up. There is a good mix of formal qualifications, ex- player experience and professional support elements, all of which when added together makes for a good coaching team. The team is young, the coaching team is young and it is evident that they may lack some top level experience but once again, I do not think they should carry the blame for all the recent poor performances.
What is the problem then?
The one bit of criticism I have is that the Lions Management are not very good at communicating and engaging with the fans. As a result a lot of fans and supporters (myself included) form their own opinions, make their own diagnosis and voice it on various platforms. A lot of it is conjecture, but in the absence of healthy engagement, it remains the only perceptual truth out there.
My view is that the Lions lack a clear corporate vision, backed up by solid short term and medium plans. I will try to explain that with two scenarios. There may be many other alternatives, but these two will explain my thinking:
Scenario1 The stated vison of the Lions is to create a team structure that will provide Lions with the ability to be a top team for the next three to five years.
Appoint a top recruiter to start looking for young talent, and obtain sponsorships to enter into long term agreements.
From board level down, ensure everyone understands the recruitment policy and how to implement it.
Sell this to schools, clubs and universities in the union. Get them on board and make use of their unique structures.
Create a proper academy that grows players as individuals, prepared for life after rugby, and at the same time preparing them for rugby at the highest level.
Start creating a culture of brotherhood, family involvement and long term home for youngsters.
Sport psychology will be most important. Create proper maturity, attitude and mentorship.
Appoint a coaching team that understands the vision, how success will be measured and how it will be achieved.
Surround them with specialists in all areas. Important is to decide what your overall brand of rugby will be, and design alternate game plans for different situations.
Find a captain that can make the squad as number one in his position, but have unique leadership qualities like John Smith had, or Francois Pienaar, and more recently Warren Whiteley.
Make communication a top priority, and engage with all stakeholders like sponsors, media and supporters. But especially supporters. Explain the plan, make sure everyone has the same information and they will buy into the journey with the team.
Execute the plan successfully, and one or two losses along the way will be forgiven by all.
Scenario 2 The stated vison of the Lions is to create short term winning team and win all or most competitions over two years.
Secure sponsorships, throw money at the problem and buy best of breed players, regardless of age or future plans.
Recruitment is aimed at instant success, and not really focused on long term.
Schools, Clubs and Universities may not buy into the plan, as talent will be procured, not developed.
Team culture may not be high on the agenda, as success will be measured based on a weekly win.
Appoint a coaching team that understands the vision, how success will be measured and how it will be achieved. It will be a totally different look and feel than the one in Scenario One.
All members of coaching and support teams will be focused on winning. Important is to understand that your brand of rugby will be aimed at winning, and trust that winning with dull displays will get spectators back to the stadiums.
Appoint the best captain you can find, even if he is only good for one season
No need to have a super communication strategy as there is only one strategy and it is to win.
Understand one thing, and that is that every loss or poor performance will be severely criticised by supporters.
I feel that the Lions are somewhere between these strategies. Some of the reasons I say this are as follows:
Young players are contracted, but not developed. As one example, both Gauteng universities had a very unfortunate Varsity Cup campaign.
Due to a lack of direction, players at the end of their careers are recruited, some even with long term injuries, and young disillusioned players leave the union.
There is an attempt at playing an "exciting" brand of rugby, but in the process defense is totally ignored.
There seems to be an almost arrogant believe at board level that fans do not have to be engaged, and that they will remain loyal, regardless of results.
Constant use of stop gap captains, who are all good players in their own right, but no long term solution as captain.
Different combinations are still tried towards the end of a campaign. It is akin to taking Scenario One, but expecting Scenario Two results.
Fans are definitely confused, even players seem to be confused from time to time as to what is expected of them. I might add tongue in cheek that even opponents are sometimes confused.
In conclusion, I can only state that this is my opinion. It is my gut feel. The only certainty is that Lions as a brand will continue to suffer severely if the current slump is not turned around. My last advice is to please engage. If the plan was to have an average season while building for the future, a proper communication campaign would have won over many supporters, whereas the current approach is driving them away in droves.
Come on Lions, other franchises could fix it, so can you.