Lions leave lasting impression

Although the Lions stumbled at the final hurdle, their Super Rugby campaign should still serve as unequivocal evidence that South African rugby can dare to be different, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

Throughout this season, the Lions have been lavishly praised for embracing an attractive brand of running rugby, while drawing regular comparisons to New Zealand sides as a result of their ball-in-hand bravery.

But one has to wonder what effect this will have on the game in South Africa in the long run? Does it really have the potential to set SA rugby on a new path?

It’s doubtful, but isn’t it about time that we acknowledged that there needs to be some form of evolution – or should that be revolution? – in our game.

While the Lions finished Super Rugby as the most effective attacking side in the competition [they scored the most tries and were ranked first for metres made and defenders beaten], the fact remains that their scrum and defence was also used as an effective weapon all season.

At the end of the day, the Lions never sacrificed South African rugby’s traditional strengths at the altar of attacking rugby. They used their set piece to good effect, remained physical in contact and often executed attacking kicks to keep the opposition guessing.

During the course of the recent June Test series, Bok coach Allister Coetzee repeatedly championed the brand of rugby the Lions were playing, and suggested he was encouraged that other South African Super Rugby sides appeared to have the desire to embrace a similar approach.

However, he also reiterated that this sort of rugby could not simply be copied and pasted at Test level. Of course, that’s a valid point, but the Lions’ success this season also defied the perception that South African players don’t have the skills or instincts to alter the status quo.

Yet, one also cannot lose sight of the fact that the Lions’ progression to this point began with a vision that was put in place prior to their return to Super Rugby in 2014.

As a collective, the Lions agreed on a style of rugby that they wanted to adopt, and then selected the sort of players with the ability and character to go out and execute it, while also bringing in the sort of coaches who would be able to enforce this approach.

There was an acknowledgment that there would be mistakes and disappointing defeats along the way, but as a group the Lions steadfastly agreed to retain belief in what they were doing until they finally reaped the rewards of their labour. We have seen this come to fruition over the last year, and it’s something that should be celebrated regardless of Saturday’s defeat to the Hurricanes.

We’ve seen what can be achieved, but now we need to start addressing what processes need to be put in place to ensure this dynamic brand of rugby is encouraged and enforced at school and junior level.

Do we have the necessary cohesion and communication to see a similar brand of rugby begin to be fostered through all levels of rugby and across the board at the various unions in South Africa?

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but the only way the Springboks will be able to enforce a more skills-based all-round game is if there is some form of uniformity and cohesion in the way the game is played at the Super Rugby franchises.

As a case in point, over the last 12 months the Bulls have often spoken of their desire to shift away from their old traditional and predictable style of play, and about evolving into a side that offers more on attack.

Although there were clear signs of teething problems during Super Rugby as the Bulls looked to adjust their approach, one can only hope that coach Nollis Marais retains the courage of conviction to keep the Pretoria-based side heading in a new direction. It’s something that should also be encouraged across all the Super Rugby franchises.

Lest we forget, Heyneke Meyer did begin to envisage a more attacking approach for the Springboks during the 2014 season, but then reverted back to type when the pressure and public impatience began to take its toll.

Yet, what the Lions have proved beyond any doubt this season is that there can be real reward for having the courage and conviction to dare to be different, and to instill this confidence and freedom in a close-knit playing group.

And as coach Johan Ackermann summed up after Saturday’s final, it is an approach that could be effectively adopted elsewhere. 

‘There's talk about that style, the coaches are thinking [about it], and if we're a small part in that direction then we're grateful for that. I think it's possible. We've got the skill at all the provinces, there's a lot of talented players. If it means that other franchises follow suit, then great.’

Indeed, there is the potential for change, and this season the Lions have proven that having the courage to do so can reap considerable rewards. It should be the lasting lesson from their historic campaign.

Photo: Martin Hunter/AFP Photo

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Craig Lewis