Saffas search for right blend

South Africa’s Super Rugby teams have shown more intent on attack, but the quality of the defence, kicking and decision-making has been largely disappointing, writes JON CARDINELLI.

You have to admire Johan Ackermann for his honesty. In the wake of the Lions’ historic win in Hamilton, the coach lauded his charges for their focus and determination on attack. The Lions were relentless, both in terms of their physical effort and desire to keep the ball alive.

In the same interview, however, Ackermann lamented the quality of the defence. The Lions conceded a couple of soft tries to the Chiefs, and those lapses nearly cost them the game.

And so, while South Africans have cause to celebrate that performance and result in Hamilton, all talk of the Lions possessing the skill set for a total-rugby approach – and perhaps a blueprint for the Springboks – is premature.

They do boast some key ingredients, though. Their scrummaging has been a highlight, and provided them with a terrific platform from which to launch in Hamilton.

Once the Lions generate momentum from the set piece, they’re very hard to stop. This is due to their ability to offload in the tackle. Another key to their attacking success – and this is something that separates them from the other South Africa franchises  – is the running lines of the supporting players.

The Lions attack like the Kiwis attack. It wasn't surprising to hear some describing the recent clash in Hamilton as 'another New Zealand derby' due to the teams' similar playing styles and attitudes.

In 2015, two New Zealand teams contested the Super Rugby final. The All Blacks went on to win the World Cup in England. While the Kiwis are widely celebrated for their handling skills and running lines, those in the know often identify the strength of their kicking game and defence as the reasons for their success.

There’s been a concerted effort to boost the attack of the South African Super Rugby sides, and even the Boks, in recent times. The Boks impressed during the early stages of the 2015 Rugby Championship with their attack. They didn’t, however, strike the right balance between running and kicking, and defence was also a problem. At the end of the season, Bok coach Heyneke Meyer said that the South African teams need to improve their kicking and defence if they were to challenge the Australasians in 2016.

The Lions, Stormers and Sharks have made good starts to their respective campaigns as far as results are concerned. And yet one would hope to see improvements as the competition unfolds. More will be needed to topple the better teams in the playoffs.

It bodes well for the Boks that so many of the South African teams are using the set pieces to good effect. The Lions, Stormers and even the Cheetahs have impressed at the scrum over the past two weeks. The Stormers are maximising the presence of two Springbok locks at the lineout, while the Sharks’ rolling maul looks well organised.

In general play, however, the South African teams have produced a mixed bag. On attack, the Stormers have been guilty of basic errors. The absence of an experienced No 10 has also limited the impact of their kicking game.

While Robert du Preez has done some good things in his first season as a starting flyhalf, his decision-making has been erratic. Coach Robbie Fleck made the point about decision-making in the pre-season. He pointed to the Kiwis as an example, and said the Stormers hoped to follow suit. Fleck believed that the Kiwis enjoyed success because they made the right calls, that is when to kick and when not to, more often than not.

The Sharks stuttered to a win over the Jagaures on Saturday. They looked rudderless in the first half when the Jaguares were two men down. They were better in the second stanza, and the introduction of the more experienced Michael Claassens at scrumhalf appeared to lend them more direction.

The Bulls had their problems in the fixture against the Rebels. This was no better illustrated than when fullback Warrick Gelant hit team-mate Jan Serfontein in the backside with an attempted clearance. 

The Cheetahs produced one inspired play from the lineout that resulted in a try for Francois Venter. Their defence showed improvement. But overall, their game management left a lot to be desired.

Much needs to be rectified if one or more of the South African teams is going to feature in the playoffs and lay claim to the Super Rugby title.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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