Five lessons from the sixth round of Super Rugby, according to SIMON BORCHARDT.
The Lions' defence must match their attack
Johan Ackermann's men have done well to score 19 tries in five matches, but unfortunately for them they've conceded 18. At Ellis Park on Friday night, against the Crusaders, they ran in four tries, but leaked six to suffer a 43-37 defeat. While there was a lot of talk in the SuperSport studio afterwards about taking positives out of what had been an excellent encounter, the fact is that the Lions lost a game they were expected to win. And if they are to be regarded as serious title contenders, winning at home is non-negotiable. The Lions have the best attacking game of any of the South African franchises, but their high-risk approach can cost them, as was the case when Faf de Klerk's long pass led to Johnny McNicholl's intercept try. Ultimately, though, they lost the game because their defence wasn't good enough and they missed too many first-time tackles. On one occasion, Howard Mnisi did everything he could not to tackle Nemani Nadolo, with the big winger putting Ryan Crotty away for his hat-trick try. If the Lions are to reach the playoffs and contend for the Super Rugby title, they need to be as impressive on defence as they are on attack.
Smaller hookers can make a big impact
Akker van der Merwe entered the fray in the 56th minute of Friday night's match when his side were trailing 36-20, and played a key role in the fightback that helped secure them a losing bonus point. The replacement hooker lived up to his nickname of 'The Angry Warthog' by scoring two storming tries. The first came from a counter-attack, with the 24-year-old receiving possession just behind his 10m line. He went round Kieron Fonotia, who expected him to pass, and when another two defenders failed to commit to the tackle, he backed himself and scored in the right-hand corner. Van der Merwe proved to be just as effective from close range when he received possession from a penalty tap 5m out and broke through three tackles to score. At 108kg and 1.78m, Van der Merwe is smaller than other hookers (Adriaan Strauss, for example, is 114kg and 1.84m), but that doesn't prevent him from making a big impact.
The Chiefs are the team to beat this season
Since losing to the Lions in Hamilton, the Chiefs have won four matches in a row, scoring 58, 30, 53 and 48 points respectively. On Saturday, they made their biggest statement yet by beating the Brumbies, the form team of the early rounds, in Canberra for the first time in eight years. And they did it by scoring six tries against supposedly the tournament's best defensive unit. The Chiefs may have come second best at scrum time, but their backline was simply sublime. According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the visitors made 19 clean breaks and beat 22 defenders, while making 73 of their 89 tackle attempts (compared to the hosts' 73 from 95). The 48-23 bonus-point victory took the Chiefs back to the top of the Australasian group log, and you wouldn't bet against them being there at the end of the league stage.
These Kings can win
After their nightmare buildup to this year's Super Rugby tournament, you would have got pretty good odds on the Kings going winless. You would have lost your money, though, as the Eastern Cape franchise beat the Sunwolves 33-28 in Port Elizabeth. The hosts showed great attacking intent, and put their bodies on the line on defence, making 158 tackles compared to their opponents' 75. The Kings scrum also dominated for most of the match, while they won four turnovers at the breakdown. It was an encouraging performance against a Japanese franchise that had pushed the Cheetahs and Bulls close, and given the Lions a tough time.
Early front-row substitutions can pay off
No sooner had Sergeal Petersen scored the Cheetahs' first try at Loftus on Saturday night, to get them back into the game at 20-10 after 33 minutes, than coach Franco Smith made some changes up front. Charles Marais replaced Ox Nche at loosehead with Maks van Dyk coming in for Johan Coetzee at loosehead. The Cheetahs scrum, which had done well until that point, were able to achieve even greater dominance with their first-choice props on the field. Early in the second half, a powerful scrum from the visitors saw the Bulls front row pop up and concede a penalty. The Cheetahs kicked for touch, and hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld went over from the lineout driving maul to make it 20-18. While those front-row substitutions didn't help to secure a win, they did enable them to push their opponents close.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images