Not many people will have the faintest idea who Zacharia Francois de Bruin is, but mention his alias Swys and the popular Lions coach will immediately spring to mind.
Standing face to face with the seasoned De Bruin this week before their departure to Christchurch to face the near impossible task of dethroning the Crusaders in today’s Super Rugby final, he hardly raised an eyebrow when confronted with the million-rand question.
What do you do when you are not busy with a heavy rugby schedule?
“When is that exactly?” he quipped. “No seriously, I see more of you guys [the media] than my own family.
“But really, my religion plays a big role in my life and if I get the chance I might go and do some fishing. I’ve also started to enjoy my cycling a bit when there’s an opportunity,” he added.
Talking about family, his wife Martelize, sons Neil (Lions backline coach) Francois and Jordan have created a protective social network.
“As far as the comments on social networks are concerned, my wife filters through them and only shows me the good ones,” said De Bruin. “What hurts me the most are the negative comments aimed at the players which are often unfounded.”
Having got to know the 58-year-old De Bruin over the last six years since he joined the Lions in 2013, he has a deep passion for nurturing young talent and the Lions brand.
It’s a brand that was at that time far removed from their current situation that sees them contesting their third straight Super Rugby final today.
In fact, when he was appointed as Johan Ackermann’s assistant, the Lions weren’t even playing Super Rugby, having been relegated to make way for the Southern Kings.
“I remember when Ackers brought me to the Lions and told me I had free reins with the backline and attacking play. It was testing times with the Lions not being part of Super Rugby that year.
“When I arrived, we got hammered by the Bulls in a friendly in Soweto and it felt like the union had been hit by a hurricane.
“So many players had left that Ackers and I had to start again from scratch. We didn’t have the big players who can run over opponents, so we decided to play a brand of rugby that would suit the players we had.
“In short, we put the boot away,” recalls De Bruin.
Born in Ficksburg and schooled at Welkom Gimnasium, De Bruin started his career as the first team coach at Durban North College, where he was also deputy principal in the early 1990s.
He was later entrusted with the reins of the provincial under-21 team by the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union in 1996 and held that position until 1999, when he moved to Griquas for a four-year stint. During that time he also coached the national under-21 team.
He returned to KZN in 2004 as the head and skills coach of the Sharks Academy and stayed on for eight years until joining the Lions.
It was in Durban where he came across Ackermann, playing for the Sharks at the time, as well as Lions captain Warren Whiteley, who was still in the under-21 ranks.
He rates Whiteley as one of the most influential people he has ever worked with.
“The world’s best captain, no doubt. You just have to spend a few minutes in his company to be inspired.
“He pulls everyone in, no matter if they are young or old, spectator or not. He just loves people and people adore him,” said De Bruin.
While there were suggestions of nepotism when Neil was appointed as assistant coach this year, his pedigree is above board. Like his father, Neil has worked his way through the ranks.
He has been the high performance coach at the Lions since 2015 and before that he was based in Potchefstroom where he was backline and attack coach for the Leopards and NWU Pukke Varsity Cup side.
Today will be a proud moment for the father and son combination as they have the opportunity to deliver the Joburg franchise’s maiden Super Rugby title and erase painful memories of the defeats in 2016 and 2017.
“We have two mottos, to honour Him and to inspire people, but it’s definitely been a tougher year than in 2016 and 2017,” said De Bruin.
“But there’s always a chance, like Kevin Anderson showed against Roger Federer.”