Tyrone Green is set to play a surprising role as the Currie Cup final between the gung-ho Cheetahs and Lions may unexpectedly be decided by a kicking game, writes rugby analyst ZELIM NEL.
There’s good reason for the popcorn vendors at Free State Stadium to be optimistic about their prospects on Saturday – the two teams contesting the 2019 final of South Africa’s domestic championship topped the charts for ball carries, passes and possession, and scored the most tries this season.
The Cheetahs and Lions each finished the league phase of the competition with a 4-2 record. An incisive Free State attack produced the most line breaks, tackle breaks and offloads to tally almost six tries and 40 points per match.
They will head into the decider with a more efficient scrum and lineout, but the Cheetahs succumbed to the Lions in round four when the teams met in Bloemfontein. The hosts took a 19-7 into the half-time break before the Lions roared back to life, scoring 17 points while conceding just three in the second stanza to overhaul their rivals for a thrilling 24-22 victory.
It’s surprising that a young Lions team hasn’t been dubbed the ‘Comeback Kids’, because they reversed half-time deficits in their first three outings of this campaign and scored 32% of all their points in the final quarter of matches.
Therein lies a clue to the Lions’ weakness. In an era of super subs, benches are often the runway to launch players celebrated more for their flair than their tactical nous. ‘The game opens up in the second half’ is the well-worn explanation for the ploy that is central to the Lions’ blueprint.
Tactical kicking is often a less prominent feature of the second half than in the first, and it’s the Lions’ ability to lure opponents away from kick tennis into an unstructured shootout that has underpinned their success over the past five seasons. Lions teams are picked and conditioned for high-speed attack, not prudent kicking.
That may seem like an odd view given the leading part played by veteran Ross Cronje, a tactical halfback. And indeed, the Lions do kick – during the league phase their win record was 3-0 when they kicked more than their opponents and 1-2 when they didn’t.
Measured on the same scale, the Cheetahs kicked more than their opponents in all four wins, and were outkicked in both of their losses. However, the Cheetahs kicked 900m more than the Lions this season, and most of that difference can be attributed to kicking metres from fullback.
Where Louis Fouche, Darren Adonis and Clayton Blommetjies have combined to match the per-game Currie Cup average of four kicks for 160m from fullback, Tyrone Green averaged 1.5 kicks for less than 40m. The 21-year-old is a rugged runner and fearless finisher, but he has yet to learn when to sheath his survival knife in favour of a bazooka.
For the Cheetahs, the loss in round four served as a refresher course on the merits of the kicking game – the Lions clawed their way back into contention by almost doubling their kick volume in the second half.
Green is almost exclusively a counter-attacking fullback, a point that would not have escaped the attention of 88-Test Springbok and World Cup winner Ruan Pienaar.
If the Cheetahs hatch a plan to use Pienaar, flyhalf Tiaan Schoeman and fullback Clayton Blommetjies to give Green the ball in situations where a return kick is the correct option, every one of his brave runs will play right into their hands, keeping Free State within striking range while stretching the field for the Lions.
No plan is risk-free or fool-proof. The caveat for the Cheetahs is that if their kicks arrive without sufficient escort, Green will link up with Madosh Tambwe, Stean Pienaar and Wandisile Simelane to tear them to shreds.
And even if the Cheetahs successfully pin Green in coffin corner during the first half, the only way to snuff out yet another epic performance from the Comeback Kids is to resist the run bait for a full 80 minutes.
The final will provide casual rugby fans with plenty of popcorn rugby to munch on, but if you care who raises the trophy, pay close attention to the kicks.
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