Lions have final lesson to learn

The pragmatic approach that yielded 34 points in the second half at Ellis Park must be backed, ahead of the headless-chicken strategy that cost the Lions 22 points in the first, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Lions’ comeback in the semi-final against the Hurricanes was the stuff of sporting dreams. After trailing 22-3 after 30 minutes, the hosts hit back to score five tries and 41 points. They went on to beat the Hurricanes 44-29 and to earn a place in the final against the form side from New Zealand, the Crusaders.

Clearly the Lions have what it takes to match the better New Zealand sides (the Hurricanes won the 2016 title) for physicality and intensity. Clearly they possess sufficient belief and composure in their ranks to win playoff matches.

We saw that in the narrow win over the Sharks in the quarter-final. We saw it again in the semi-final triumph over the Hurricanes.

The Lions never say die. They find a way to win. That is a testament to their coaching staff as well as their on-field leadership.

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Should we leave it there? The Lions, after all, are the only South African franchise that has advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs in 2017. Three local teams were effectively guaranteed quarter-final spots thanks to the ludicrous Super Rugby format, and thus the Sharks and Stormers are hardly deserving of praise for their playoff qualification. The Lions, on the other hand, have proved to be something out of the ordinary. They’ve earned the right to be talked about as genuine title contenders.

The Lions have played the most balanced brand of rugby of all the South African sides this season. They have won the hearts and minds of South African rugby supporters with their blend of grit and guile. Most recently, they have come out on top in one of the most dramatic playoffs in the history of Super Rugby.

Dare we demand more of this team in the lead-up to the Super Rugby decider? Do the Lions have anything more to prove?

Johan Ackermann answered this question in the wake of the Lions’ win over the Hurricanes. The Lions coach spoke about the team’s journey over the past five years. He commended the side’s progress, but then highlighted the fact that the Lions were yet to win the Super Rugby trophy.

The coming game against the Crusaders, of course, will represent one final chance for the Lions to claim the title that matters while Ackermann is still at the helm. The former Bok lock has signed a contract with Gloucester and will link up with the English club in the coming weeks.

The harder question is this: Do the Lions have reason to believe that they can beat the Crusaders in a final, following their performance against the Hurricanes? I would suggest that the answer is both yes and no, and that the Lions would do well to understand why a physical and mental sharpening is needed ahead of a meeting with the seven-time champions.

Again, the Lions showed their mettle in the fixture against the Hurricanes. Any team that wins after trailing by 19 points in a playoff is worthy of high praise.

It must be said that a change in tactics paid dividends for the Lions. They sought to play direct rugby against the Hurricanes in the second stanza. They backed themselves at the set pieces. They looked after the ball at the breakdowns. Slowly but surely they worked their way into Hurricanes territory. The likes of Ruan Combrinck, Elton Jantjies and Ross Cronjé won the tactical kicking battle for the Lions in the second half.

It should go without saying that the Lions will need to avoid conceding three tries or more to the Crusaders in the first half hour of the final. It should also go without saying that a more focused performance is needed at the set pieces and collisions during this period of the game, and that the leaders in the team will need to make their voices heard in the first 30 minutes, as well as in the last 50.

The Lions have the set piece and defensive tools to beat the Crusaders and win the title. They have proved that they are fit enough to outlast a top New Zealand side, and that they have the temperament to respond in a pressure situation.

We’ve yet to see the Lions produce a complete performance in the 2017 playoffs, though. They were inconsistent in the win against the Sharks and needed the goal-kicking brilliance of Combrinck to earn them a semi-final spot. They were poor in the first half against the Hurricanes, and only a change in tactics in the second led to a dramatic improvement as well as an unlikely win.

The Crusaders may not be as generous in the final as the Hurricanes were in the semis. The Hurricanes made 32 handling errors in the recent match at Ellis Park. After racing to a 22-3 lead they missed out on several scoring chances at the end of the first half, and thus an opportunity to put the Lions away.

The Lions go into the decider with home advantage. They go into this clash against the Crusaders with the knowledge that no team has ever traversed the Indian Ocean and won a Super Rugby final.

That said, they should take nothing for granted in the build-up to the most important game of Ackermann’s five-year tenure. They need to produce a more pragmatic and ultimately a more controlled performance across the 80 minutes of the decider.

Inevitably, many will say that the Lions have entertained this season and that they should strive to entertain in the final. Ackermann and his charges should have more sense than that, though. It wouldn’t surprise to see the Lions persisting with the winning tactics witnessed in the second half of the recent semi-final.

Photo: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

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