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Lions lock in coach ahead of South African Super Rugby derby

April 4, 2019
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Lionel Mapoe of the Lions celebrates after a try during the Super Rugby match between the Sunwolves and the Lions at Singapore National Stadium, in Singapore, Saturday, March 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Danial Hakim)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Having secured an important part of their long-term future, the Johannesburg-based Lions can focus on a more immediate challenge when they face the Durban-based Sharks in Super Rugby on Friday.

The Lions this week announced they have re-signed head coach Swys de Bruin for the next two seasons.

Initially as an assistant to Johan Ackermann, then as head coach from last year, de Bruin has been a key member of the coaching team which helped lift the Lions from relegation in 2012 to the Super Rugby finals in 2017 and 2018.

With his guidance the Lions have continued to be the most competitive South African club in the tournament, topping their conference repeatedly in recent seasons.

The Lions are in that position again after seven rounds, atop the South African conference with 18 points, but only a point ahead of the Pretoria-based Bulls and two clear of the Sharks.

The Bulls face Argentina’s Jaguares in the last match of the round, so the Lions vs. Sharks encounter could be a contest for first place in South Africa near the midpoint of the season.

De Bruin is able to focus more fully on the contest after resolving the issue of his immediate future. He said he extended his contract because he had unfinished business at the Lions.

“I want to finish what I started here,” de Bruin told a news conference. “With a young team and the right experienced guys, I believe we can achieve that.

“I had opportunities to go elsewhere — this is a big world — but after a lot of consideration, I decided it is the right thing to stay.”

With seven under-21 players in the squad, de Bruin said, “imagine what this team will be like in two years’ time.”

De Bruin defined the unfinished business he feels he has to attend to with the Lions.

“We have to ... become a better team, play a better brand of rugby,” he said. “Maybe the bonus will be we win a cup or two but it’s not about that. It’s about us reaching our maximum potential.”

That potential will be tested by a Sharks team which might still reeling after a fractious clash with the Bulls last week.

The Sharks have lost three matches against South African conference rivals this season, all close and physical contests typical of derbies. They hope the match against the Lions will be more free-flowing.

“Potentially this could be a more open game to the ones we have played so far against fellow South African teams,” coach Robert Du Preez told Super Sport. “The Lions have scored quite a few tries — (and) we like to keep the ball in hand. That amounts to lots of potential for a more open and flowing game.”

Du Preez said the match would still be tough, typical of this season’s tight South African conference.

“This competition certainly doesn’t get any easier,” he said. “The Lions are on a high in Johannesburg and they are always tough up there.

“But we are in a very positive mood. We won everything except the match when we played the Bulls and there were some fantastic positives. So although we lost the last time we played, we can still take some momentum and confidence into the match.”

The other South African team in action this weekend, the Cape Town-based Stormers, face the Queensland Reds in Brisbne as they continue a tough Australasian tour. The Stormers lost to both the Wellington-based Hurricanes and Auckland-based Blues.

The Hurricanes face the Dunedin-based Highlanders and the Blues take on the New South Wales Waratahs, who have rested captain Michael Hooper after a surprising loss to the Sunwolves. The defending champion Crusaders host the ACT Brumbies in Christchurch and the Australian conference-leading Melbourne Rebels meet the Sunwolves.

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