Lions deserve applause

The Lions' win against the Blues in Albany must be acknowledged and appreciated, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

The Blues are a squad of underachievers and they slumped to a fourth successive league defeat last Saturday against the Lions.

But the Blues' woes must not detract from the victory of the Lions. It was an outstanding result, made even more memorable because the Lions in the history of the tournament had never beaten the Blues in New Zealand.

It was a victory fashioned on defence, conditioning and primarily being more effective without the ball. The Blues, as against the Cheetahs a week before, were ill-disciplined and frantic on attack and played like a team whose players are devoid of confidence and simply trying too hard to make things happen too quickly.

The Lions made similar mistakes in the opening round of the tournament against the Hurricanes, when so much of their attack was rushed and they looked more comfortable in New Zealand without the ball.

The victory was one that told of the unity of the squad and the enthusiasm that has been a feature in the past two seasons. Credit to coach Johan Ackermann for instilling a player enjoyment that's aligned to a strong work ethic.

Lions teams over the last decade have often hinted at something special with the odd cameo but they simply could not find consistency in results or performance.

Who knows if the Lions' tour of New Zealand and Australia this season will finally bring reward, but it would be cruel to focus on the failures of previous campaigns when there has to be acknowledgement and appreciation of what was produced in Albany.

The reflection is one of applause to the coach, management and players and the hope is that the applause dominates the squad’s month overseas.

NZ Rugby World magazine, in previewing the tournament, stated emphatically that the Lions were not good enough to win in New Zealand and that they would do everyone a favour by not touring and conceding the log points. There was much mocking of the Lions in the editorial. It read like a laugh but the laugh was on the Kiwis.

The Bulls, after an indifferent start to the season, were very good in Bloemfontein and for the second successive week veteran Victor Matfield had more strut than stumble in his legs.

The biggest strut belonged to flyhalf Handré Pollard, who was exceptional and played the most complete Vodacom Super Rugby match of his brief senior career.

Pollard is the best flyhalf in South Africa. I’ve been emphatic on that view since he made his Test debut against the All Blacks last year and excelled in Wellington, New Zealand and in Johannesburg.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer opted to entrust the No 10 jersey to Sharks flyhalf Pat Lambie in three of the four season-ending Tests in 2014.

Meyer defended his selection with reference to how well Lambie played and the almost forgotten man of Bok rugby suddenly found favour with several columnists, commentators and coaches within South Africa.

Lambie was good without being exceptional. Pollard in the two Tests against the All Blacks was exceptional and he reminds me so much of a 21-year-old Dan Carter.

I’d pick Lambie in a Bok match-day squad, but Pollard is the best No 10 we’ve seen in South Africa since Naas Botha ruled.

There has to be investment in him and there also has to be an understanding he is 20 years old (he turns 21 on Wednesday). He is going to make mistakes as his game evolves and he will play matches in which the performance may not match the expectation of his talent.

But there should be no questions about his ability to be the general of South African back play in the next decade.

Lambie has responded well to the challenge of leading the Sharks’ game management and the more game time he gets the more accomplished he looks.

South African rugby is fortunate to have the quality of Pollard and Lambie as World Cup options. Both should be applauded and allowed to develop without the weekly knee-jerk reactions.

Duane Vermeulen is another of the South African players currently in the world’s best category. The Stormers No 8 was colossal for the Springboks in 2014 and he would have been my pick for the World Rugby Player of the Year. He was SA Rugby magazine’s Fans’ Player of the Year and he was also the chosen one for the South African Rugby Union annual awards.

This year his performance has been of a similar quality but the responsibility of leading the Stormers has made Vermeulen an even bigger influence and presence.

He was huge against the Sharks, whose many experienced international players were made to look pretty ordinary.

The Sharks were as poor as the Stormers were good and I don’t see a quick fix. There are too many chiefs in the Sharks coaching set-up and too much naivety and inexperience.

The Sharks' woes, though, are not representative of South African rugby and again there was much to stir optimism in individual performances and in the team efforts of the Lions, Bulls and Stormers.

Photo: Michael Bradley/AFP Photo