Willemse may lead exodus
PAUL Willemse's move from Ellis Park to Loftus could mark the beginning of a player exodus from the Lions.
The SA under-20 lock's signing by the Blue Bulls from the Golden Lions was confirmed yesterday.
The Lions have lost their Super 15 status for next year. Coupled with other problems, the union is now in a vulnerable state. Retaining its best players will be a challenge and hanging on to promising talent, such as Willemse, could be impossible.
It is understood that several Lions players have clauses releasing them from their obligations to the union in the event of not playing Super rugby. Agents are already looking for new opportunities for the Lions' best young players.
The Bulls were quick to pounce on the impressive 19-year-old Willemse, who made his Super rugby debut earlier this year. At 2m tall and weighing in at 127kg, Willemse has the physical attributes to become a future star of the game.
"He is clearly enjoying his rugby and one can see that in his efforts on the field," said Bulls Super 15 coach Frans Ludeke.
On the scale of setbacks the Lions have endured in the past two weeks, the news of Willemse's move is not seismic. But he is potentially a player around whom a tight five could be built and the impact of his departure will only be felt in years to come.
Prop Jacobie Adriaanse last week revealed he was leaving for Welsh club the Scarlets, while there are constant suggestions that flyhalf Elton Jantjies is looking at other options.
Coach Johann Ackerman said the uncertain future facing the Lions is putting strain on the players, but he praised the way they have responded.
"I can't fault the players. They give us great energy at training and they've responded to every challenge," Ackerman said after the Lions beat Western Province 26-23 at the weekend.
"It's a tough situation for them, but at this stage they are focused. We had a job, which was to beat WP, and now it is to beat Griquas and get to the Currie Cup play-offs."