Lions must not settle for second

Don’t celebrate the Lions' Super Rugby defeat against the Crusaders, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

Don’t take comfort from a four-try Lions performance. Don’t applaud coming second.

The Lions, flamboyant in their approach to win the 2015 Currie Cup, and equally attack-orientated in the first month of this season’s Super Rugby, were rightly saluted for beating the Chiefs in Hamilton in round two.

But they took a beating a week later against the champion Highlanders and needed to win at home against the Crusaders to signal intent that they are more contender than pretender when it comes to potential semi-finalists.

The Lions are South Africa’s premier domestic team. They dominated the Currie Cup and they were irresistible in winning in Hamilton.

The willingness of the Lions coaching staff to embrace a ball-in-hand approach has won them friends in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They play with energy, with a belief in their attack and with confidence in their skills.

But there is a difference between entertaining and winning and – for me – beating the Crusaders at Ellis Park would have shown the maturity and growth of a team whose spectator value shouldn’t simply be that they are the exception to the South African rule and a breath of fresh air in a South African Super Rugby challenge defined by conservatism and an inability to consistently beat teams through attacking brilliance.

The Lions' quality must be in more than being expressive. It is right to have an expectation that South Africa’s domestic champions are a quality rugby team with the skill and functional intelligence to beat any visitor to Ellis Park.

The Lions conceded 43 points to the Crusaders. That statistic requires critique and not a clap and pat on the back.

If we do this we are emphasising a mentality that rewards coming second. The Lions are not an inexperienced team. They have been together for four years and while they have thrilled us with their attacking desire, the manner of defeat to the Crusaders was deflating because it highlighted defensive flaws and, most crucially, decision-making in game management. It also asked questions that focused on an understanding of the match situation.

The Lions, all flair and all-out attack, must find balance to their approach. They are a good enough side, in terms of individuals, combination and coaching staff, to learn from the defeat.

But to do so there has to be honesty within the squad about tactical naivety and intensity drop-offs that have to be fixed for this group of players to ever turn domestic dominance into Super Rugby champions.

We saw similar reactions, among spectators, the South African rugby media and the national team management and playing squad when the Springboks lost an entertaining and attack-minded try-scoring feast against the All Blacks 38-27 in 2013.

Back then Bok coach Heyneke Meyer applauded the Boks’ ability to score four tries against the All Blacks. There wasn’t enough focus on the defensive issues that allowed the All Blacks five tries. The All Blacks scored 38 points at Ellis Park. The Crusaders got 43.

I wrote in 2013 that celebrating home defeats at Ellis Park was telling New Zealand that coming second was now considered good enough in South African rugby.

The style of play should never allow for an escape in defeat.

I expected more from the Lions. I wanted more from them.

They did not deliver against the Crusaders, just like the Boks did not deliver the all-round game and the necessary mental composure and strength in claiming a ‘good’ second place.

I fear South African rugby’s national psyche is one of second is better than third when it should be that second is one off winning.

A second-rate national administration has settled for second-rate national coaching appointments. The job was never advertised.

No statement of intent to be the best in the world was made in asking the best coaches in the world to apply for the job through an advertisement.

SA Rugby president Oregan Hoskins, who in 2008 described Peter de Villier’s appointment as a political one based on transformation, has this time described the pending confirmation of Allister Coetzee as Bok coach as being a ‘merit political appointment’.

There was a time in South African rugby when it was inexcusable to lose against anyone at Ellis Park. Now the All Blacks win regularly at Ellis Park – and other teams have also enjoyed success.

Those who govern the game in this country are not global leaders and Coetzee, for all his experience as a Stormers head coach and Springbok assistant coach, does not rank among the game’s top 10 best coaches.

The Springboks – in so many respects – have settled for second best. Please don’t let this happen to a Lions team with the potential to come first and not a ‘comforting and entertaining’ second.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images