• Lions find middle ground

    The Lions prevailed over an attack-minded Sharks outfit in round seven thanks to an improved defence and kicking game, writes JON CARDINELLI.

    The Super Rugby derby at Kings Park did not go according to script. In the buildup, the Lions were billed as the all-out attack specialists. The Sharks were expected to play the percentages, and to use their tactical kickers to good effect.

    As it transpired, the Sharks kept more ball in hand while the Lions showed more variation in their approach. According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the hosts racked up some impressive attacking numbers. And yet they failed to score a single try. That is a credit to the Lions defence.

    The Sharks made as many as 421m with ball in hand. They shaded the Lions in every attacking stat (bar tries scored), made twice as many clean breaks (12 to six) and nearly twice as many offloads (11 to six).

    The Lions defence was evidently equal to the challenge. The Sharks coughed up possession on 26 occasions. In many instances, the turnover was the product of a physical Lions tackle. The visitors missed one more tackle than the Sharks, but made 25 more tackles overall (for a total of 137).

    The Lions were more clinical with ball in hand, and more accurate when putting boot to ball. Interestingly, it was the Lions (with 24 kicks in play) who kicked more than the usually conservative Sharks (18).

    In fact, every Super Rugby team (bar one) that outkicked its opponents in round seven went on to win the match. It may surprise some people to learn that the Reds, who boast a reputation for their ball-in-hand exploits, made as many as 30 kicks in play. These tactics went a long way towards securing a win against the current Super Rugby champions, the Highlanders.

    The Force came within a point of beating the Crusaders in Perth, and also outkicked their opponents by 35 to 28. Who would have thought that two Aussie teams would top the kicks-in-play stats for a single round? Perhaps they felt that the Highlanders and the Crusaders, two strong tactical teams, could not be breached via a ball-in-hand approach.

    The Stormers were praised for their seven-try performance against the Sunwolves. What was less impressive, however, were the Cape side’s defence stats.

    The Stormers missed 30 tackles. Only the Chiefs (with 36 against the Blues) missed more in round seven. The Sunwolves, who were without a number of star players like flyhalf Tusi Pisi on the night, managed to break the Stormers’ line 19 times.

    When one considers the limitations of the new franchise, and the fact that they weren’t even at full-strength this past Friday, one is less inclined to praise the Stormers’ attacking performance. The hosts made 665m with ball in hand, beat 31 defenders, and made 25 clean breaks. That Sunwolves defence, of course, was nothing to write home about.

    More could be read into the Bulls’ performance against the Kings. For starters, the Bulls were playing away from home. They were facing up to an opponent coming off a particularly impressive defensive showing against the Sunwolves in round six.

    On Saturday, the Bulls scored six tries, and kept the Kings tryless. Winger Jamba Ulengo took his try tally for the season to four. No South Africa-based player has scored more in the 2016 tournament.

    On defence, the Bulls completed 126 of their 139 tackle attempts. They effected 13 turnovers on defence. The Kings enjoyed 54% of the possession, but the Bulls were more clinical on attack and also made more kicks in play (26 to the Kings’ 17).

    More Super Rugby stats

    Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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    Jon Cardinelli