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Straeuli: Super Rugby relegation a blessing in disguise for Lions

Lions Group chief executive officer Rudolf Straeuli says that the year out of Super Rugby gave the team time to reflect and start afresh.

Lions Group chief executive officer Rudolf Straeuli. Picture: EWN

JOHANNESBURG - The Lions will compete in the Super Rugby semifinals for a third successive time when they take on the 2014 champions, the Waratahs from Sydney, at Ellis Park on Saturday.

Having come short in the 2016 and 2017 Super Rugby finals to the Hurricanes and the Crusaders respectively, there is great optimism about 2018 being the third time lucky for the Johannesburg-based side.

It hasn’t always been this rosy at Ellis Park as they have come from extremely testing times in the past. The Lions and the Cats, as they were previously known, have a history of being perennial wooden spoon contenders and they have come back from a year out in the Super Rugby wilderness.

Prior to the relegation from the southern hemisphere’s premier competition, the union faced a period of stringent financial difficulties as they lost sponsorships left, right and centre.

It’s a period that Lions Group chief executive officer Rudolf Straeuli remembers with great pain and strife.

“That period was very difficult for the union as we struggled to secure sponsorships and pay our staff. We faced a period where we had to retrench a few of our staff, which was very sad for us.”

Then, Straeuli still occupied the position of director of rugby but remembers the failed financial investment that the Guma TAC and Transafrica Capital, led by business partners Brian Gumede and Ivan Ichikowitz, made at the union.

“It was tough, but we have to praise the leadership shown by our president Kevin de Klerk and chairman Altmann Allers, to buy back those shares so that we could rebuild the business.”

But the real turning point in the Lions' fortunes was when they had to watch from the stands in 2013, after being relegated from the competition at the expense of the Southern Kings, a decision which divided opinion in South African rugby.

Straeuli says that that year gave them time to reflect and start afresh.

“I remember we lost a lot of players, and importantly sponsors, in that year because we were out of Super Rugby, but it was such a blessing in disguise because it allowed us to reflect and really put in the hard work in trying to turn the union around.”

The following year the Lions were back in Super Rugby and the results of the hard work were starting to take shape.

They had notoriously fallen out with head coach John Mitchell and former Springbok lock Johann Ackermann was elevated to the head coach role.

That year the Lions finished eighth on the overall standings, a vast improvement from their wooden spoon finish in their last campaign in 2012.

They had scrapped together players that were deemed surplus to requirements from other unions and Ackermann was gradually moulding them into a team that could compete in the competition.

Fast forward three years later from their relegation and the Lions had made a Super Rugby final and were entrenching themselves in the hearts of rugby fans in the country.

Much of the Lions' success can be attributed to Ackermann, who now plies his trade at Gloucester in England, but Straeuli hails a collective effort that even stems from the junior structures.

“I don’t think one man could have done all that we have achieved alone, and it has been a great collective effort from everyone involved in the union. Johann [Ackermann] and Swys de Bruin have been brilliant in forging a beautiful culture here, but guys like Joey Mongalo, Philip Lemmer, Ivan van Rooyen have done a great job as well.”

Here’s to hoping that the Lions can join their Jukskei River rivals the Bulls on the Super Rugby honours board at the end of the 2018 season.