The Lions have lost three matches against New Zealand opposition because of a flawed and naive approach, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The good news is that all is not lost. Despite the humiliating 50-17 defeat at the hands of the Hurricanes, the Lions are still at the top of the Africa 2 conference and still in a position to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in their history.
The bad news is that a pattern is slowly emerging. We’ve seen the Lions play an intelligent brand of rugby. We’ve seen them subdue and then run riot against the likes of the Sharks and the Stormers. Unfortunately, balanced performances such as these have often been followed by limp and rudderless showings against Kiwi opponents.
The Lions made history when they beat the Chiefs 36-32 in Hamilton in round two. A week later, they were hammered 34-15 by the Highlanders in Dunedin.
After crushing the Cheetahs 39-22, the Lions went down 43-37 to the Crusaders at Ellis Park. They went on to win their next three matches convincingly, but subsequently conceded 50 points against the Hurricanes, again at Ellis Park.
Maybe we’ve misjudged the Lions. Maybe they’re not as good as we think they are. On the other hand, maybe they’ve been more than a little naive to believe they could run New Zealand teams off their feet, teams that specialise in feeding off an opponent’s attacking errors.
The numbers don’t make for pleasant reading. In four matches against Kiwi opposition, the Lions have conceded 159 points and 21 tries. To put things in perspective, the Lions have conceded a total of 76 points and seven tries in their other five matches.
We know the Lions are the best team in South Africa at the moment. We know that they have the game plan to succeed. But why do they insist on using that game plan against South African opponents, and not against the Kiwis?
The Lions were handed a lesson at the breakdown in the loss to the Crusaders. The visitors’ Matt Todd was particularly impressive. The Crusaders controlled the rucks and the collisions, and controlled the pace of the game.
Those who said the Lions loose trio didn’t have the ability to succeed in a more physical battle were made to eat their words a week later. Jaco Kriel, Warwick Tecklenberg and Warren Whiteley embraced the fight in the trenches, and the upshot was that the Lions backline enjoyed a good platform.
The Lions could have done with that combative attitude against the Hurricanes. As it was, the Lions forwards appeared reluctant to get stuck in at the breakdown. At the same time, they persisted with an expansive, high-tempo game. It was a suicidal approach against a team like the Hurricanes.
Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies have come in for some criticism following that heavy defeat. The blame, of course, should be laid at the forwards’ door. The Lions' backs spent most of the game behind the gainline. It wasn’t surprising to see the Hurricanes scoring intercept tries in that scenario.
What was especially disappointing to see was the Lions' reaction following the early setbacks. They refused to alter their approach.
Instead, they tried harder. They continued to force passes, they continued to believe that more carries and more offloads would lead to the desired result.
In the end, it wasn’t surprising to see them conceding 50 points. The more they persisted with that flawed approach, the more mistakes they made. The Hurricanes, who were in a particularly ruthless mood, made them pay.
The Lions have a bye in round 11 and so will have a week to reflect on their tactical failings. They will have a shot at redemption when they face their fifth Kiwi opponents of the season, the Blues, at Ellis Park on 14 May.
It wouldn’t surprise to see the Lions playing with more balance and intelligence in that match. This is, of course, how they have reacted following each big loss in 2016.
They’ve now completed their toughest conference matches (against the top four New Zealand teams), and you would expect them to win the bulk of their remaining matches against the South African sides as well as the Jaguares. However, they must not forget the losses to the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes, and indeed the reasons for those defeats.
The Lions need to revisit and fine-tune a balanced game plan that has already led to some notable wins in 2016. It’s an approach that has the potential to bring them success in the playoffs.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images