Lions marry brains with brawn

The Lions will be genuine title contenders following a quarter-final performance that exuded as much intensity as it did intelligence, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Consider the reigning champions across the different levels and major competitions. What do the All Blacks (2015 World Cup champions), the Highlanders (2015 Super Rugby champions), Saracens (2016 Champions Cup and Premiership winners) and England (3-0 series winners in Australia in 2016) all have in common?

These teams don’t view attack in the conventional sense. They endeavour to use their defence as a means to attack, their tactical kicking as a means to gain ground or to fracture the opposition defence.

Their opportunities to run and score tries are born from their defensive dominance and line-kicking superiority. Their ability to close out big games and ultimately win major trophies is down to their fitness. The most successful sides in world rugby are those who maintain their intensity from kick-off well into injury time.

No Test side in the world matches the All Blacks in the departments of defence, tactical kicking and fitness. That said, since Eddie Jones has joined England, there’s been a shift towards a game plan that embraces similar virtues.

Saracens aren’t rated as the most attacking side in Europe. There are more potent teams than the Highlanders in Super Rugby. And yet the accuracy and intensity of these two sides has allowed them to claim top honours over the past 12 months.

Now consider the teams that will be vying for silverware in the near future. Three New Zealand sides and the Lions have advanced to the Super Rugby semi-finals, and again, these trendsetting teams share common traits.

Testing conditions forced the Hurricanes to play a more territorial game in their quarter-final against the Sharks. The inclement Wellington weather may well have brought out the best in the local side. They heaped the pressure on the Sharks through a physical performance upfront and a pinpoint kicking game that earned them 70% of the territory. Once the platform had been set, the Hurricanes cut loose to finish with as many as six tries.

The Chiefs achieved something similar in their 60-21 win against the Stormers in Cape Town. They played the game at pace, but still sought to take good options and play the contest at the right end of the park. They weren’t afraid to launch a contestable kick, or to deploy a grubber for their outside backs to chase.

After the quarter-final in Wellington, Sharks coach Gary Gold lamented the tactical naivety of his charges. Stormers coach Robbie Fleck was similarly disappointed with his side following a performance that lacked sufficient brains or brawn in Cape Town.

Fleck said that the Chiefs were competing at a different level of intensity. He spoke of the Kiwis with admiration, and confirmed that the Stormers were looking to emulate that style of play.

Fleck did take the time to laud the Lions as a shining light in South African rugby, a side that is showing the rest of the top teams in this country how to play. The statement was made shortly after the Lions had completed a stunning 42-25 win against the Crusaders in the quarter-final at Ellis Park.

The Lions have played with attacking intent since the first match of their 2016 campaign. Their forwards and backs have combined brilliantly. Halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies have been at the centre of their attacking success, but credit should go to the whole group for the intensity and accuracy they have displayed.

The lines they’ve run, the offloads they’ve made, the tries they’ve scored … it’s little wonder they’re viewed as South Africa’s answer to a New Zealand team, even in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

The recent win against the Crusaders was a big statement. Some will choose to focus on the result or the fact that the Lions scored five tries and 42 points against a Crusaders team with a proud reputation on defence.

I’d prefer to highlight the Lions’ improvement in other departments. They out-kicked and out-tackled the Crusaders on the day. They maintained their intensity over the 80 minutes. The Crusaders came back late in the contest, but the Lions still had enough in the tank to finish strongly and secure a 17-point victory.

This bodes well for the next two rounds. It could be viewed as a sign that South African rugby is moving in the right direction, if not that it’s ready to challenge the better international teams for trophies of substance.

The Kiwis have three sides in the semi-finals, a fact that highlights the quality of their depth. The All Blacks will be spoiled for choice in the coming Rugby Championship. The Springboks, by comparison, will be hoping that their key players remain fit. Even the Lions aren't blessed with a great many options outside their best XV.

The Lions will need to beat two crack New Zealand sides over the next two weeks to claim their first Super Rugby title. If they continue to play with intelligence and intensity, if they continue to strike the necessary balance between defence and attack, they will increase their chances of winning a trophy that has eluded South African teams since 2010.

Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli