The Lions must force the Brumbies to chase the game at Ellis Park on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
In a recent interview, coach Johann Ackermann told SARugbymag.co.za that the Lions' 2015 goals are modest. Ackermann hoped the Lions would finish the league having improved on their 2014 performance. Last year, the Lions finished the tournament in 12th place and won seven games.
It's been three games since Ackermann spoke those words, and the Lions are certainly on course to reach those targets. In fact, after beating the Cheetahs and the Highlanders recently, Ackermann and his charges are now on the verge of a new franchise record. More importantly, the conversation at the Ellis Park HQ will now shift to permutations and play-off requirements. The Lions are in with a chance of finishing the league in the top six.
The upcoming game against the Brumbies is a big one in the context of their season. Victory this Saturday will mark their eighth win in 2015, an improvement on last year's win record. It will also mark the Lions' best-ever return in a single season since they split from the Cats franchise in 2006.
Ackermann has been praised for his influence, and one need only look at his record over the past two seasons to see that there is substance to the hype. In fact, even though the current season is yet to conclude, Ackermann has already steered the Lions to more wins (14) than his predecessors John Mitchell (six), Dick Muir (0), Loffie Eloff (11), and Frans Ludeke (two) did in their respective tenures.
That said, Ackermann has made it clear he won't let the relative success of a once-struggling franchise go to the Lions' players or coaches' heads. At the start of the season, few would have predicted the Lions would have such an opportunity after 12 rounds. But after what we've seen in 2015, we should start to expect more. They have a great chance against the Brumbies this Saturday, and they have to make this chance count.
Despite their recent loss to the Stormers, the Brumbies still lead the Australian conference and occupy the No 3 position on the overall log. Of course, if one reverts to the pre-2011 measurement where log position was based solely on points, the Brumbies would now be in sixth place. Their current record of six from 12 tells a story, and is inferior to the Lions' seven from 12.
The Lions have won a lot of fans this season, as was witnessed in their most recent performance against the Highlanders, they possess a flair for the dramatic. After trailing by 17 points at half-time, they rebounded to win 28-23.
A closer look at their 2015 campaign indicates the second-half surge is a trend. On 10 occasions this season, they have trailed the opposition. Despite the handicap, they have gone on to win five of those matches. And of the five losses, they have done enough to secure the losing bonus point on two occasions.
What this confirms is the Lions are a well coached side that's good under pressure. It also indicates they are supremely fit. They've outlasted two New Zealand sides in the second half this season, namely the Highlanders and the Blues, to claim significant victories.
However, one cannot forget the Lions have lost just as many games when trailing at half-time. It's a sobering stat, and they should be wary of allowing a team like the Brumbies a first-half lead.
The Brumbies have led at the break eight times, and have gone on to win six of those matches. Interestingly, they haven't won a match when they've been down at half-time (four losses). Unlike the Lions, the Brumbies don't chase the game well.
While the Lions will back themselves to chase down the opposition's score in the second stanza, they would do well to improve on their first-half record. If they can flip the script and take an early lead against the Brumbies, it will improve their chances of winning a vital match.
The 2015 stats confirm the Lions have been stronger in the second half than in the first. Fifty-eight percent of their points have been scored in the second half. Of the points scored against the Lions, 44% have come during this period.
And yet, consistency is the mark of a play-off contender. The Lions have to produce a strong first-half showing this Saturday in order to place the Brumbies under pressure. If they go to half-time with a lead, they will be in a fantastic position to win the game, break a record, and strengthen that claim for a top-six berth.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images