Lions get basics right

The Lions didn’t settle for second best in a crushing win against the Sharks, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.

The Lions, SA’s dominant domestic team in the past 24 months, were expansive, but also tactically naive in losing to the Crusaders at home.

But in Durban this past weekend, there was no room for romanticism as the Currie Cup champions physically embarrassed the hosts, dominated the set piece, the collisions and also tactically were superior in every aspect. This was as crushing a defeat as the Sharks have suffered in the past two seasons.

Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold will have an examination of his own sanity and skills as a coach in the next month. So too his players, who must front three away matches in New Zealand without flanker Marcell Coetzee and then make the trip to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares.

The Sharks, after a promising start to the tournament, have problems. The next month could be more a test of survival and damage control. Where they looked like playoff contenders a few weeks ago, they were made to look like pretenders in Durban.

Give the Lions credit for winning the arm-wrestle instead of relying on all-out attack. This performance was as mature in every aspect as the defeat against the Crusaders was immature.

Every player did the basics well and flyhalf Elton Jantjies was supreme in his control of the game. He has never looked more composed and assured, and he is easily the best South African flyhalf in this year’s competition.

The Lions scrum was destructive and the continued experiment with Springbok loosehead Coenie Oosthuizen as a tighthead prop again proved more of an embarrassment for the player, who was substituted in the 38th minute.

SuperSport analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett was scathing of Oosthuizen’s all-round contribution, saying he needed to get his head right because his performance was unbecoming of a Test player.

Springbok fullback Willie le Roux is another who has to deliver performances of greater authority, while the makeshift and short-term flyhalf option of Joe Pietersen was finally exposed.

The match was more about the Lions than the Sharks and this weekend’s SA table-topping clash in Johannesburg between the Lions and Stormers will have the intensity of a playoff. It will also be the Stormers’ biggest challenge so far this season.

Realistically, where there were possibly three South African teams to give hope in this year’s competition, there are only the Lions and Stormers. The overall standard among SA’s six franchises lacks quality and all the talk that new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee (he will be confirmed officially on Tuesday) will by year two be restricted to local talent is a huge restriction for coach, team performance and results.

Coetzee, handpicked for the job, has been given his support structure, which includes his predecessor Heyneke Meyer’s forwards coach and team manager, as well as a black backline assistant coach, in another feeble attempt from the game’s national administration to 'fast-track' transformation.

The talk now is that Coetzee will also not be able to have unlimited access to the best South African players abroad and that whoever wants to captain SA has to play in this country.

There will also be a structured approach with selection dependent on Test experience. This is said to be a way to limit young Springboks moving abroad. It is ridiculous because the South African rand and the domestic contract going rate can in no way compete with the euro and the pound, as well as the big contracts for playing in Japan.

All that will happen is the Springboks will get weaker and get beaten more often and more easily. Forget the romance of picking only locally-based players; pick the best available.

It is something that is of secondary importance to those who govern rugby in this country. Agendas continue to take priority over what is good for the game.

Take the agenda with 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White, who is persona non grata at SA Rugby because he too often challenged the national administration.

White won the 2004 Tri-Nations and won SA a junior and senior World Cup. White then left for Australia and won the Australian conference with the Brumbies, won an away semi-final against the Bulls in Pretoria and a week later, narrowly lost the final in Hamilton to the Chiefs.

White then returned to the Sharks and won the South African conference, won a home play qualifier against the Highlanders (who a year later would be champions) and lost away to the Crusaders in a semi-final. White is now at Montpellier, where his team is second in the Top 14 and they have also qualified for a first European (Challenge Cup) semi-final.

White requested formally, by email to Saru’s leadership, if he could apply for the Bok coaching job when Meyer resigned. He was told the post would not be advertised.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images