Lions game plan under scrutiny

The Lions need to play with more balance and intelligence if they hope to exact revenge on the better New Zealand sides in the playoffs, writes JON CARDINELLI.

How much have the Lions learned over the past few months? The question will be answered on Saturday and possibly on the two weekends that follow when the Johannesburg-based side competes in the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time.

The Lions will play the Crusaders at Ellis Park this Saturday. Thereafter, they could face the Highlanders in the semis and the Hurricanes in the final. In terms of opposition, the Lions could not have asked for a tougher route to the title.

The Crusaders outclassed the Lions the last time the two teams met in the conference stage. The Hurricanes punished the Lions for a loose approach, racking up as many as 50 points. Both of these big wins were achieved at Ellis Park.

The Highlanders thumped the Lions 34-15 in Dunedin. The 2015 champions employed pragmatic tactics. They overpowered the Lions with their physical defence and won the territorial battle via an accurate line-kicking performance.

Both the Crusaders and Highlanders play a style of rugby that is suited to high-pressure playoff matches. The Hurricanes have also started to play with more balance, and will have the benefit of home advantage, possibly for the next three weeks.

Overall, the Lions scored more tries than any other team over the course of the conference stage (71). They have battled, however, to score against Kiwi opponents this season. That hasn’t been for want of attacking intent.

On the contrary, the Lions have come unstuck when they have attempted to run absolutely everything back at the opposition. In some instances, they have played directly into the hands of Kiwi teams who excel in forcing turnovers and translating counter-attacking opportunities into points.

There will be a call for the Lions to back their attacking game against the Crusaders on Saturday, and one can understand why. When the Lions get it right with their powerful scrum, their offloading game, their running lines, and their finishing, they are a joy to watch.

Indeed, one could go as far to say that the Lions, along with all five of the New Zealand teams, have provided fans with a reason to watch this year's Super Rugby tournament. The format as well as the rugby served up by most of the other teams have provided many with a reason to change the channel.

But razzle dazzle doesn’t win championships. Attack has its place in high-stakes matches, but it is not as central to victory as defence and the strive for territory.

Now is not the time to talk about backing an all-out attacking strategy. Forget the live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword mentality. The Lions need to keep their real goal in mind. They’re in this tournament to win it, not to entertain.

We’ve already seen them produce a few complete performances in 2016. In those fixtures, they have proved that they have the grunt to complement the guile. They have shown that they have the kicking game to win territory and the defence to force mistakes.

However, they are yet to show such intelligence against one of the Kiwi heavyweights. They will have the opportunity to do so against the Crusaders this weekend, and possibly in the next two games that follow.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli