How the Lions learned to roar

It was great to have a chat with Bart Schoeman who is the high performance manager at the Golden Lions. To my immense shame this was back in April and I’m only now getting it on “paper”. As you will see the Lions exceeded their goals this season.


I kicked off the conversation talking about how the 2015 season was kick started by their tour after losing their opening 3 games in South Africa. The Lions went on to win 3 out of their 4 tour games and challenge for the playoffs. In 2016 the Lions season started with a tour that also went well with wins over the Sunwolves and Chiefs.

Bart explained that the Lions really work on what is needed to tour successfully both physically and mentally. They are very proud of their conditioning and the great work that the conditioning staff do. Being fit and also injury free is clearly a key ingredient for touring. This isn’t something that can be achieved quickly and is something that was born out of 2012 when the Lions were out of Super Rugby. Heading into 2015 the core of the squad had been together for 3 seasons. Over those years the young team had built up their conditioning and muscle memory to cope with the way they play. That time together has also brought the players and coaches close together.

The Hard Times – 2012

When the Lions dropped out of Super Rugby they had 2 choices to either fall a part or pull together. They went into survival mode as they lost a lot of senior players, but it wasn’t just the elite squad but the whole union that had to pull together as they lost 100 million rand (~7.5 mill USD) in sponsorship. This led the team to go back to basics and conditioning was an important part of that as it allows you to keep your players on the pitch. It’s been important to get everybody to buy into the vision and to keep the squad together.

This period also allowed young players to get exposure as the Lions lost a lot of senior players. One thing that came through during our conversation was the collaboration with the local universities. The feeder system in South Africa is similar to the USA with a strong Varsity Cup. This is different to the club structure you get in other countries. The Union is very committed to making sure these student players, that might progress into the Currie Cup and Super Rugby, complete their studies. Not everybody can make it and they need something to fall back on.

The Top 6 Inches

I was really interested that he talked about the metal preparation for touring as well. I’m a great believer that all professional teams should have a sports psychologist as part of the coaching team. When we went back to this point Bart explained that due to cost constraints the Lions can’t afford a full-time sports psychologist. This is where the University ties also became apparent, a university psychologist who was involved with the Varsity Cup worked with the Lions. His role was seen as being very important and he was so successful that he traveled with the Springboks to the Rugby World Cup. That promotion means a new person has come in for 2015.

The Lions Style

Over the last couple of years the Lions have not just been an up and coming franchise, breaking records, but they have also been stylish. It’s this style that has really caught the imagination of pundits and fans globally making the Lions everybody’s second favourite team. Bart gave me an insight into where that had come from. In round 12 of Super Rugby in 2014 the Lions played the Chiefs in Hamilton and put in a good performance. Even so the Lions still lost 38-8.

After that game Ackermann and Rennie had a chat. It proved to be a light bulb moment as Rennie talked about needing supporters to come and watch the game. This means you need to play a brand of rugby that will bring people to watch you. The Lions haven’t just copied the “New Zealand” style but have taken that philosophy on board looking to balance expansive play with kicking and defence. This has led the Lions to be the second best supported team in Super Rugby in 2015 and breaking attendance records in 2016.

Springbok Recognition and Player Retention

We went on to talk about Springbok recognition, many pundits have pointed out how few Lions were in the Springbok squad for the Rugby World Cup. I was concerned how this might impact player retention as the Cheetahs bleed players and the Lions have in the past too. Bart was of the opinion that as long as the players and team kept performing then recognition would come. But that they had to prove that 2015 wasn’t a flash in the pan. As we have seen since, Bart’s’ confidence was well placed and Lions players were called up for the June tests and now for The Rugby Championship.

The core of the team and coaches are all secured for the next 2 seasons. However the Lions do recognise that they can’t compete with European clubs for cash. The Lions are taking a similar approach to Australia offering flexible contracts to senior players. This means some senior players are released play in the Top League in Japan and miss the Currie Cup. The Currie Cup can then be used to give young players an opportunity at senior rugby.

When will the Lions win Super Rugby?

I asked Bart when would the Lions win Super Rugby and whilst he didn’t give me a year he did give me an insight into their plan. One of the things that kept coming up in our conversation was the Currie Cup. I didn’t realise how important it still is in South Africa and it became very clear when he outlined their goals over the last few years.

Lions Goals

Year Super Rugby Currie Cup


Top Half Missed Playoffs Achieved


Top 8 Achieved Champions Achieved


Playoffs Achieved Back to Back Champions ???


Final ???

They have not hit all their goals but as we can see they aced it in Super Rugby this year and have gone well in the Currie Cup.

It has been great watching the Lions on their journey over the last 2 years but there is so much more to it than we see and this success isn’t by accident, it’s been planned over years. It’s also clear that it’s not just about Ackermann and the senior squad, it includes the CEO, members of the Union and universities all working together.

A big thank you to Bart for taking time out to talk me, it was a great pleasure.

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