Arduous road ahead for Lions
Golden Lions interim coach Johan Ackermann said his side would now start their journey towards reclaiming a Super Rugby berth after they were knocked out of the Currie Cup competition over the weekend.
"There will still be some tough games coming up over the next six months but it won't be in a competition format," Ackermann said after their 21-16 semi-final loss to Western Province on Saturday.
"Our first big game will probably be the playoffs to get back into Super Rugby here at Ellis Park."
While Ackermann was proud of his team's performance against Province, he bemoaned their lost chances.
"We had many opportunities to close down the game but we didn't take them," he said.
Ackermann, however, lauded his players for their triumph over adversity to reach the Currie Cup semi-finals after a difficult year.
The Golden Lions Rugby Union (GLRU) not only lost their place in next year's Super Rugby competition but were further mired in controversy when their New Zealand coach John Mitchell was suspended towards the end of their Super Rugby campaign.
The Union also terminated assistant coaches Carlos Spencer and Wayne Taylor's contracts shortly before the start of the Currie Cup competition.
"The players had to remain level-headed about their futures, then there was the new coach, and new assistant coaches," said Ackermann, who had to step into the coaching role.
"If you consider all of this, we could as well have finished in sixth place and everything could have fallen apart. We could have been involved in the promotion/relegation matches."
The Lions have an arduous road ahead of them as they have already lost a number of senior players to other unions and overseas clubs.
While the Johannesburg-based outfit was set to lose key players Franco van der Merwe, Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute and Lionel Mapoe for the duration of the Super Rugby season -- as loan players to other South African franchises -- although they would return for the promotion/relegation matches.
Despite the exodus of top players, Ackermann said they would work hard to strengthen player depth.
"There are a core of players who are committed and then we've identified some young players that can slot in where the other guys have left off," Ackermann said.
"We just have to knuckle down and build the team as a unit and, if you have 22 guys that want to play, we won't be bad."
The coach said the team would continue their off-season training as if they were preparing for the Super Rugby.
He was also confident that the alternative matches they were arranging for the side would prepare them for the promotion/relegation match against the SA team which finishes last on the Super Rugby conference log.
"We are still going to play the Super Rugby franchises and there will be some exciting games for the guys of a higher standard than Vodacom rugby," he said.
"We've got a few months to build a side towards that, and use the lessons we've learned tonight (Saturday) because that game will almost be like a semi."
Among the players who will remain behind is captain JC Janse van Rensburg, who said he felt he needed to repay the Union for the faith they have shown in him over the years.
"I came here as a 'boertjie' and the big city was massive for me and I couldn't even speak English," Janse van Rensburg said.
"The Union has, over the years, been great towards me, always willing to give me a contract, and I just feel I have to pay them back.
"It will only be six months not playing Super Rugby but in 2014 we will be back with a bang."