The drive to dominate the collisions and then vary the point of attack has made the Lions and Bulls as dangerous as any New Zealand Super Rugby team, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Rassie Erasmus told me recently that he will add coaches to his management team as they are needed. While an ‘official’ Springbok coaching staff has already been announced, Erasmus believes in using every available resource in the South African rugby system.
‘If we need to bring in Swys de Bruin or John Mitchell, then that’s what we’ll do,’ the new Bok coach said while talking to me for a wide-ranging SA Rugby magazine interview. Since then, it’s been confirmed that De Bruin will join the Boks ahead of the Tests against Wales and England this June.
The Lions have been the best attacking side in South Africa since returning to the Super Rugby fold in 2014. De Bruin has played a key role in that evolution.
Indeed, some might say that the Lions have taken their attacking game forward in recent months. The men from Johannesburg currently lead the competition for tries scored (47 – 10 more than the second-most prolific side).
What’s interesting to note is that the Lions have scored the most tries from first phase in this year’s tournament (21). They boast a reputation for breathtaking rugby, a brand many, including those in New Zealand, have compared to the Kiwi style of play. And yet, when one considers the stats, one understands how much they have invested into winning the scrums, lineouts, and collisions.
The Lions thrashed the Waratahs 29-0 this past Friday. The result marked the Lions’ first-ever victory in Sydney as well as the best possible start to their four-game tour to Australasia.
What would have caught the eye of Erasmus was the way that the Lions bossed the Waratahs up front. The visitors were dominant at the scrums, lineouts and mauls. The manner in which they attacked the space thereafter was encouraging. Captain Franco Mostert praised his forwards in the aftermath, and yet it would be inaccurate to say that this was a typical South African forward performance.
The Bulls played with ambition and intelligence in the first half of their clash against the Rebels in Pretoria. Mitchell’s charges have blown hot and cold this season, and last Saturday’s game was yet another example of a side that is still searching for an 80-minute performance. That said, there’s more than enough evidence to believe they are on the right tactical track.
The Bulls forwards destroyed their Sharks counterparts in round nine. The backs exploited the space behind the defence to telling effect. It was a complete performance by a side that is striving to become the total package.
We saw that ambition and execution in the early stages of the match against the Rebels. You would be forgiven for thinking that Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock had swapped their respective strips for Bulls jerseys. RG Snyman and Lood de Jager were that good in terms of their running lines, support play and decision-making.
The Bulls tight forwards got stuck in at the collisions and breakdowns. They also contributed a few subtle passes that made all the difference to the team’s attack. Adriaan Strauss is another who had a big game, both as a set-piece and attacking exponent.
Both teams have room for improvement. The Lions haven’t been as strong on defence in 2018 as they were in previous seasons. They have work to do if they are going to topple the better New Zealand teams.
The Bulls fired in the first half of the recent tour fixture against the Chiefs. Poor defence let them down in the latter stages, though.
Both appear to be in a better space than the teams based on the coast. Blindside flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit has been a tireless performer for the Stormers while Sharks centre Lukhanyo Am has shown what he can offer the Boks in terms of attack and defence. However, apart from a few individuals, these teams have disappointed with their intent as well as their execution.
The Stormers have failed to front physically. Their attack has been lateral and largely predictable, while their defence has been particularly poor. The last-placed South African side has conceded more points (280) and tries (40) than any other local team. Only the Sunwolves (49) have leaked more tries overall.
With the Cheetahs and Kings no longer in the Super Rugby mix, the Stormers are now favourites for the South African wooden spoon. That said, they may face some competition from the Sharks on that front.
Robert du Preez slammed his side for a lack of commitment following the 40-10 loss to the Bulls in round nine. The coach should share the blame for a record that reads three wins in nine matches, though. Nobody is about to accuse this Sharks outfit of being as tactically ambitious as the Lions or Bulls.
It will be interesting to see how the Lions fare when they go up against the Hurricanes and Highlanders during the latter stages of their tour. The Bulls will host the Highlanders in round 11, and their defence, as well as their aerial skills, will be under scrutiny.
The top South African teams have improved their attacking structures to the point where they can fracture Australian and New Zealand defences. Solid showings on defence and with the tactical boot will give Erasmus further reason to feel encouraged ahead of the Test season.
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