Lions skipper Doppies la Grange has sounded a rallying cry for his side to show some pride and shake off the ‘close but no cigar’ tag that they have earned this season.
Timmy Hancox writes for rugby365 that La Grange has described being named as the Lions captain as a “great honour” and is one of the senior player who has watched coach John Mitchell bring in a fresh approach to the struggling franchise.
Last season the Lions were breaking all the wrong kind of records – losing all of their 13 Super Rugby matches – but there is renewed optimism surrounding the team packed with promising young players.
“There has been a big improvement [this season] with a lot of changes, and we started the season with 11 players making their Super Rugby debuts and could have won four out of four [at the start of the campaign] against big teams like the Stormers and the Bulls,” La Grange told rugby365.com.
After narrowly losing their first four matches this season, the Lions have closed the gap on the rest of the sides, but have struggled to get across the line and win those close matches.
“We are wary of being labelled as that team [that always loses tight matches], but all we can do is train harder, improve on your mistakes and just hope for that win and the bounce of the ball to go your way,” La Grange said.
“We have to work hard on improving what we did wrong in the previous two weeks, especially at the set-phases we must keep to our structures.”
The 29-year-old believes that through hard work his side’s fortunes will change and is planning a big effort this week to reward the loyal Lions fans.
“We haven’t won a home game yet, and we want to show some pride and win at home [against the Stormers this weekend], because we’re letting our fans down at the moment,” he explained.
“We have a good team spirit and my challenge as captain is to keep the guys positive after losing a few games, but that hasn’t been an issue for me at all. What’s great is that is that the guys are taking responsibility and that adds to our team values.”
La Grange will have his hands full in the midfield on Saturday up against Springbok duo of Juan de Jongh and his former Lions teammate Jaque Fourie.
“Jaque is a good friend and I have great respect for him – he’s a great player and so is Juan de Jongh. It always motivates me when you come up against quality centres and the whole team want to prove a point against a side full of Springboks,” he said.
Aside from his great work at centre, La Grange has made a name for himself as a backline player capable of winning more turnovers than many loose forwards.
With a big smile La Grange attributes his work on the ground to his background as a schoolboy wrestling champion.
“It has always been a part of my game and luckily with my wrestling background helps and wherever I can help our loosies I’m happy to get stuck in there and take some contact,” he explained.
“I wrestled when I was a youngster and became a South African champion. Baywatch (Cobus Grobbelaar) was the same and it helps your base strength with that background.
“Luckily I never wrestled against Baywatch – he’s a bit heavier than me,” La Grange quipped.
The tough inside centre and a handful of other experienced Lions stalwarts have taken it upon themselves to groom the new crop of youngsters as the Johannesburg franchise builds towards the future.
“Sometimes you have to control their over-eagerness, but they also listen well and it is exciting times seeing these guys come through and turn into great players.
“It’s a great responsibility on the coaching staff and the senior players to help the talented youngsters,” he said.
Mapoe out of Stormers clash
Meanwhile Supersport reports that the Lions will be without winger Lionel Mapoe in their Super Rugby clash against the Stormers on Saturday.
The former Springbok Sevens star picked up a knee ligament and was withdrawn from the team on Friday as a precautionary measure.
“Due to Lionel’s injury, Michael Killian will move to wing with Jaco Taute coming in at fullback,” Lions team Manager Mustafa Boomgaard said on Friday.
With Taute in the starting line-up, centre Alwyn Hollenbach has been promoted from the Vodacom Cup side.
Mapoe’s misfortune is the fifth setback in personnel for the inexperienced Johannesburg side ahead of their match against the Cape Town outfit.
He joins flanks Derick Minnie and Josh Strauss, fullback James Kamana and flyhalf Andre Pretorius on the list of injured players.