The Lions can still go on to win this season’s Super Rugby title, but they need to heed the lessons learned from their last two major playoff games, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There was a serious sense of déjà vu when watching this past Saturday’s quarter-final between the Lions and Sharks, with the Durban-based side effectively enforcing a kicking and defence-orientated formula that is well-suited to big matches.
While the Sharks fell just short at Ellis Park, it bore many similarities to how the Hurricanes adopted a similar appreciation for superior defence and accurate line-kicking in last year's title decider.
On that occasion, the Canes rattled the Lions with their kamikaze-style rush defence, while they won the battle at the collisions, with their forwards winning many of the physical exchanges up front. In many ways, it was exactly what the Sharks did to great effect this past Saturday.
And just as Curwin Bosch did a great job in turning the Lions around with some raking, long-distance field kicks, while keeping the scoreboard ticking over from the kicking tee, so Beauden Barrett used the boot as an attacking weapon in last year’s final.
With the Canes winning the territorial, defensive and physical battles, they ultimately cruised to a 20-3 win to claim their first-ever Super Rugby title, while the Lions were left humbled by their inability to accurately execute their natural game.
The Sharks adopted a very similar template of turning defence into attack, with their powerful tackling and superb line-kicking leaving the Lions looking rattled and frustrated in equal measure.
Ultimately, the Lions managed to complete a lucky escape, but if they hope to progress past the semi-final stage, they simply have to show an appreciation for the timely playoff reminder that the Sharks provided on Saturday.
The Hurricanes will now travel to Ellis Park for a rematch against the Lions, and you can expect them to look to emulate the approach that proved so effective in last year’s final (and for the Sharks in last Saturday’s quarter-final).
The Canes will know from last year that if they can win the battle at the gainline and cut down the Lions’ space and time on attack through physical, high-paced defensive linespeed, they can nullify the Johannesburg-based side’s greatest strengths.
Don’t forget that the Lions also haven’t faced any New Zealand opposition this season, and it may take some time for them to come to grips with the pace and intensity that is second nature to a side such as the Canes.
So what can we expect from the Lions? Coach Johan Ackermann has already said they will not divert from their typically ambitious approach, but he has called for greater execution and better decision-making.
More importantly, though, he has to prepare his players to not only anticipate the Canes’ high-speed defence, but to display the necessary composure and accuracy to overcome it.
With a lack of go-forward ball, Elton Jantjies looked particularly uncomfortable this past weekend, while the Lions appeared uncharacteristically rushed to try force something to happen, rather than complete the hard yards up front first.
The Lions do have a pack that can get the better of the visitors, and their first priority should be to enforce their own brand of physicality, while ensuring their ball carrying, support play and quick ruck recycling prevents the Canes from setting and asserting their defensive line.
The Lions need to ensure they enforce a far greater appreciation when to run, kick or pass, while taking every goal-kicking opportunity that comes their way.
In many regards, the Lions’ scare against the Sharks this past weekend was the perfect dress rehearsal ahead of Saturday’s semi-final against a Canes side that will not only kick and defend with accuracy, but that boasts immense potency with ball in hand.
The Lions should be grateful to have passed last Saturday’s pressure test, but they must make some pragmatic adjustments to their play this weekend if they are to progress to a second successive final.
Photo: Anne Laing