The Lions gave South African rugby fans reason to feel optimistic ahead of the Super Rugby semi-finals and the all-important Rugby Championship, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Tough to watch. How else could one describe the Proteas’ utter capitulation on day two in Colombo, or the one-sided contest between the Crusaders and Sharks in Christchurch?
South African sports fans would have been encouraged by what they saw on Saturday afternoon, though. The Waratahs beat the Highlanders to ensure that two rather than three New Zealand teams progressed to the semi-finals. Most significantly, the Lions downed the Jaguares to keep South African rugby’s hopes of claiming a first Super Rugby title since 2010 alive.
The Crusaders blew hot and cold in their 40-10 win over the Sharks. Similarly, the Lions played well in patches in the 40-23 victory against the Jaguares. Both teams have room for improvement, and one gets the feeling that both will be a lot sharper in their respective semi-final matches.
Perhaps the Hurricanes can do the Lions a favour next Saturday. One can’t see a South African side traversing the Indian Ocean to beat a Kiwi team in the final, or an Aussie outfit ending the country’s collective losing run in New Zealand in a decider.
The Hurricanes are best-placed to beat the Crusaders at this point. They are one of only two teams to beat the Cantabrians this season. They will travel a relatively short distance from the North Island – rather than from South Africa or Australia – for the semi-final.
Consider what a Hurricanes win in Christchurch could mean for the Lions. If Swys de Bruin’s charges go on to beat the Waratahs thereafter – which they should, as the latter side will need to travel all the way from Sydney for the semi-final in Johannesburg – they will have one hand on the title. In that scenario, the Lions will go into a decider against the Hurricanes at Ellis Park as favourites – just as the Crusaders will go into a final against the Lions – or Waratahs – as champions in waiting.
Unfair? You bet. Take it up with the geniuses at Sanzaar who decide the format.
While you’re at it, ask them how a New Zealand referee is appointed for a Crusaders-Sharks playoff in Christchurch, or how a South African referee takes the whistle for a Lions-Jaguares quarter-final in Johannesburg.
I digress, though.
The Hurricanes can do the Lions a favour by beating the Crusaders next week. Based on what we saw in the recent quarter-final at Ellis Park, the Lions have the players and the game plan to go all the way – especially if the next two playoffs are staged in Johannesburg.
Indeed, there is more than one reason for South African rugby fans to feel encouraged by the recent showing against the Jaguares. While the elite players in the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks’ ranks will rest up ahead of the Rugby Championship tournament, the stars in the Lions side will give Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus more food for thought through their performances in conditions similar to those of Test rugby.
The Lions scrum was outstanding against the Jaguares. The maul fired and, when Cyle Brink was on the park, the hosts dominated the collisions.
Malcolm Marx delivered a timely reminder of what the Boks have been missing at the breakdowns. The Lions hooker, who missed the four Tests this past June due to injury, won several penalties at the ruck at crucial stages of the contest. Marx has been compared to Bismarck du Plessis as a scrummager and as a lineout exponent, but on Saturday he emulated Du Plessis with his strength and decision-making over the ball.
Erasmus should have taken note of that. Duane Vermeulen won’t be available for the Rugby Championship, and the Boks will need to fill the gap with another forward who can play to the ball. It will encourage Erasmus – and indeed De Bruin, ahead of the Super Rugby semi-final – to see Marx in such game-breaking form.
So much has been made of Damian Willemse’s impact at Super Rugby level, and Erasmus himself has added fuel to the fire by suggesting that the Stormers youngster will become a Bok sooner rather than later. While Willemse should be nurtured and exposed to the Bok systems this season, Erasmus would do well to invest in two experienced No 10s in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup.
The Boks need two good options, and at the moment there are only two seasoned options in South Africa. There will always be a debate about who should start if both players are fit, but the reality is that Erasmus needs to plan for the possibility of Handré Pollard breaking down with injury in a World Cup playoff situation. Will Willemse be able to slot in for the Boks in that scenario?
When Elton Jantjies fires, he burns white-hot. This was evident on Saturday when he produced one of his best performances in a Lions jersey.
The powers that be named Jantjies Man of the Match after the flyhalf produced a flawless place-kicking performance – and nailed a drop-goal – to finish the contest with 20 points. Jantjies did far more than kick for goal, though, and one would hope that he receives due recognition for his option-taking and execution in general play.
Aphiwe Dyantyi was another who caught the eye with his performance under the high ball, his kicking, and general work rate.
I know that Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, who has been tasked with developing the aerial skills of the elite players, have placed an emphasis on the kick-chase this season. No doubt they would have been pleased by the Lions wing’s showing against the Jaguares.
If we are going to be critical, we should ask why the Lions took so long to get going in the quarter-final, and why they missed so many tackles in the first half. Those initial lapses cost them six points against the Jaguares. However, the Crusaders, and even the Hurricanes, will punish those mistakes more severely in a decider.
The Lions need to keep on improving. They smashed the Waratahs 29-0 in Sydney earlier this season – a result which marked their only win on a four-game tour to Australasia. They should be wary of complacency this week, though.
The game against the Waratahs will present an opportunity to build some momentum. The Lions will need some confidence going into a potential decider, given that they lost all four games to Kiwi teams during the 2018 conference phase, as well as the 2017 final to the Crusaders at Ellis Park.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images