Elton Jantjies and Handré Pollard will have plenty to prove on defence in what could be a season-defining clash between the Lions and Vodacom Bulls, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Most of South Africa’s top teams – and best players – have struggled to maintain a high level of performance in recent seasons. When I interviewed Jantjies for the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, the Springbok and Lions flyhalf admitted that he needed to be more consistent in 2019 after blowing hot and cold last year.
Unfortunately, the first two rounds of the 2019 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament have showcased the bad as well as the good of South African rugby. Jantjies, another Bok flyhalf in Handré Pollard, and several other Test players have mixed the magic with the mediocre.
There was ample reason to sing the Lions and Bulls’ praises following the results and performances in round one. The Lions, with Jantjies pulling the strings at No 10, produced a convincing tactical and defensive performance to score their first-ever win in Buenos Aires. The Bulls, with Pollard on song as a game manager and goal-kicker, made a statement via a 40-3 annihilation of the Stormers.
Then their alter egos turned out for the respective teams in round two. The Lions were beaten by a poor Stormers team in Cape Town, and Jantjies had a shocker. The Bulls appeared disorganised and disinterested when visiting Buenos Aires, and Pollard was among the senior players who had an evening to forget.
The two Gauteng-based sides will meet at Ellis Park this Saturday. The game marks the Lions’ first appearance on the highveld in 2019, and that may well influence their tactics. The Bulls, who have been notoriously poor travellers in recent years, should be happy to be back in South Africa.
According to Sanzaar’s match stats, the Lions completed 128 out of 147 tackles at Newlands for a success rate of 88%. They forced 10 turnovers on defence. At a glance, those numbers suggest that the Lions have no reason for concern.
But, as coach Swys de Bruin admitted after the game, the Lions forwards weren’t clinical enough in the second stanza. The visitors conceded too many penalties (15 in all), and when one looks at the individual tackle stats, it becomes clear who the Stormers targeted in that Lions backline.
Jantjies completed only 10 of his 17 tackle attempts. The Stormers sent a lot of traffic down that channel last Saturday, and enjoyed plenty of success – as far as breaching the gainline is concerned.
Damian de Allende made 12 carries and opted to pass on two occasions. Anyone who watched the game would have noticed how the Stormers No 12 charged into Jantjies. And as seen below, No 13 Ruhan Nel made a lot of ground when running at the Lions flyhalf, thus providing a great platform for the Cape side.
The Bulls may look to follow suit. It’s not uncommon to see Jantjies in the wider channels when the Lions are defending from a set piece. But if the likes of Duane Vermeulen, Pollard and No 12 Burger Odendaal receive the opportunity to travel down Jantjies Avenue, they will take it.
The Lions flyhalf must view this match as a chance to prove his worth. As he stated in the aforementioned interview, he needs to start contributing across the board on a more consistent basis.
The Lions forwards could do him a favour by keeping the Bulls on the back foot, though. They will fancy their chances at the set pieces this week, following confirmation that Bulls skipper Lood de Jager has been ruled out with injury. The Bulls may miss De Jager’s ability to orchestrate lineout turnovers.
The Bulls forwards were magnificent against the Stormers in round one. Last Saturday, however, the side failed to adjust to the wet conditions and were outmuscled and outwitted by a more combative Jaguares pack.
The clip above shows the Jaguares setting a lineout and driving over from close range. There was another incident in the match – this time from the Bulls’ feed – that led to the hosts crossing the tryline.
Jaguares No 8 Javier Ortega Desio gets up to beat Vermeulen at the front of the lineout. The Bulls get lucky in that the ball falls back on to their side, but Thembelani Bholi fails to control it.
Again the Bulls are fortunate in that the Jaguares scrumhalf Tomás Cubelli passes deep and Ramiro Moyano opts to cut back inside instead of running at the wide defence – which hasn’t had time to align, as the visitors began the play expecting to attack from the lineout.
Moyano makes good ground, but the Bulls eventually bring him down. They should, in theory, have a better chance to regroup and shut down the wide attack from the next phase. Instead, we see Bulls defenders shooting out of alignment or falling over.
The Bulls finished the match against the Stormers with a 92% tackle-success rate. On Saturday against the Jaguares, they managed a poor return of 81%.
Pollard and Odendaal missed five tackles between them. Vermeulen, usually one of the best in this category, missed three out of six attempts.
Both teams will be looking to impress at Ellis Park this weekend. The Lions have been one of the best attacking sides in the tournament for the past three seasons. The Bulls are looking to play a more balanced game in 2019.
We’ve come to expect an attacking spectacle at Ellis Park, and yet there’s reason to believe that both teams will adjust their attitude ahead of a must-win clash. The side that wins the key defensive battles will win the game and take a 2-1 record into round four.
Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix