Lions remain a cut above

The Lions combined grunt with guile to stall the Stormers and send a powerful message to would-be New Zealand opponents, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Has Robbie Fleck been this angry since becoming Stormers head coach? A few journalists pondered this question in the wake of the post-match press conference at Newlands on Saturday evening.

Fleck refused to blame the referee or the TMO for the Stormers’ 29-16 defeat to the Lions. Instead, he pointed a finger at the players.

Through a series of pointed answers at the press conference, Fleck appeared to be asking a question himself: How can the Stormers dominate the Chiefs one week and then show little to no appetite for the same level of physicality the next?

Not that Fleck had any problem with the result. In fact, a couple of days earlier, the Stormers coach pulled a couple of scribes aside after the team announcement to highlight the gap that exists between the Stormers – and every South African side for that matter – and the Lions.

The Lions beat the Chiefs in New Zealand in 2016. While they dropped games against the Highlanders, Crusaders and Hurricanes in the regular season, they beat the Blues. In the playoffs, the Lions proved too strong for both the Crusaders and the Highlanders.

Fleck’s statement was simple. While the Stormers struck a big blow when they beat the Chiefs – and outscored the Kiwi side by four tries to three – they have much to prove. Until they have beaten a Kiwi side in New Zealand, until they have collected several Kiwis scalps, and until they have downed a New Zealand side in a playoff, they cannot be spoken about in the same breath as the Lions.

Put like that, the Lions’ superiority appears self-evident. Indeed, the flow of the game as well as the result at Newlands only served to confirm what Fleck feared: that the Stormers have a long way to go.

The Lions scored more points and tries than any other Super Rugby side in 2016. Even though they were forced to compete against the trendsetting New Zealand teams during the conference stage, they racked up these impressive numbers and progressed as far as the final.

The Lions' approach has been more balanced in 2017. The decision to take a second-string side to Buenos Aires in round three may be questioned later in the season – just as it was in 2016 when the Lions lost to the Jaguares in Argentina and forfeited the chance to host a potential final – and yet it’s clear that Johan Ackermann and company have refined the team tactics as well as the player management policy.

The Lions beat the Stormers on Saturday via a superior physical and tactical performance. The visitors won the battle in the trenches. They won the tactical-kicking duel in the second half. They embraced the physical contest and finally looked to use their defence as a weapon.

On the back of that dominant physical performance, the Lions scored four tries and a bonus-point win. The Lions hammered the Stormers at the collisions and frustrated the hosts at the breakdowns.

Someone said it was like a Test match. Indeed, it reminded one of a particularly brutal performance by the Springboks of old. The Lions were physical but they were also clinical on the counter-attack.

It’s a travesty that the Lions won’t face the New Zealand teams during the conference stage. That said, the Lions’ performance against the Stormers –  a side that beat one of the better Kiwi teams convincingly – would have given Ackermann some idea of where his side stands in the greater scheme of things.

Much will be expected of the Lions when they face the Jaguares and three Australian sides over the next four weeks. Of course, Ackermann and company should be preparing their charges for the challenge they will face in the knockout stage.

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As things stand, it seems likely that four New Zealand sides will qualify for the playoffs. A team like the Lions may be forced to beat three Kiwi teams in order to claim the Super Rugby title.

While the Lions remain South Africa’s best bet for a title in 2017, the Stormers bear watching. They’ve taken great strides in their first seven matches and will be put to a different sort of test when they play in Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington over the next three weeks.

Make no mistake, though, the Lions remain a cut above every other side in South Africa.

Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli