Former Springboks defence coach John McFarland on what the Lions must do to win the SuperRugby final
The Lions will want to just keep on doing exactly what they have been doing as they build up to the SuperRugby final against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday.
We want to see the Lions play with the same verve, confidence and execution because that’s what’s in their DNA, it’s what they’ve been training all season.
The biggest thing when preparing for a final is to use up all the emotional energy. The size of the occasion is constantly on the players’ minds, the consequences of winning or losing. At the Bulls when we won our three titles we would have very short sessions in finals week and not introduce anything new. The guys must just release steam at training.
You might not use anything new anyway in the final and the first 20 minutes of the game are always very frenetic and you want to be doing the things you do well, you want to be confident that you can execute them.
It’s also important this week for the Lions guys to get away from rugby, go play tenpin bowling or something, you don’t want them sitting in their rooms thinking about the game.
Then, the night before the match we would have our jersey presentation but the players would do it themselves. Each one would give a short presentation of what the final means to them and make a pledge to the team. They were the guys who worked so hard to get there and those evenings always meant a lot to the players.
We’d then play a video summary of the season we’d gone through, with music and the tries of the season – Johan van Graan was always an expert at putting those together, they were magnificent!
And then you want just a normal game day before the final.
As far as the match itself is concerned, the Lions certainly have the game plan to give the Hurricanes problems, mainly because Elton Jantjies is executing those pinpoint attacking kicks so well. He set up two tries against the Highlanders in the semifinal through a chip and a crosskick, and that sort of kicking is one way to beat the Hurricanes’ rush defence.
But Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara is also a superb sweeper and the Lions will have to make sure their kicks bounce and back into their hands!
The Lions set-piece is also very strong and their scrum and lineout maul will both be huge factors and I think they’ll want to impose themselves on the game that way. The Hurricanes could be under big pressure in those departments.
The Lions played with a complete sense of freedom and no fear against the Highlanders. Most teams don’t have the guts to run the ball from behind their own goal-line but the Lions did it twice in the semifinal and made superb exits. But that was on a dry Highveld day and to reproduce that at a wet and windy Cake Tin will be challenging.
The challenge in finals is how to release pressure and the Lions have done that in their two playoff games by attacking from deep. They get the ball in the outer channels and then kick for space. But it might be a different kettle of fish in the Cake Tin.
Neither Elton nor Faf have particularly long kicks, but the Lions like to play before kicking so they’ll carry the ball for a phase or two and then kick for space and get the chase going.
But the Hurricanes’ defence really rushed the Lions from first phase in their match at Ellis Park, which caught them off-guard. They conceded a couple of intercepts because of that man-on-man pressure, but Swys de Bruin will definitely have come up with a plan for that.
The Lions defence is also very different to all the other South African teams. From a middle ruck, the second-last man – be it Faf de Klerk or Elton Jantjies – is almost in front of the line, closing down the space, he brings the whole line forward. It’s that line speed that caught the Highlanders unawares and they couldn’t get the ball to their wings. It’s a high-risk/high-reward tactic because most teams just shadow and move across in those situations, but the Lions put the opposition under pressure at those wide rucks.
If there’s one guy who brings inspiration to the Hurricanes, it’s loose forward Ardie Savea. He has special skills and a great work-rate, and he has the ability to crack a game wide open because he has such pace. I bet the Lions wish he had gone to the Olympics to play Sevens instead!
But the Lions have to make sure that they are very physical on him and fellow flank Brad Shields to set the tone. They need to keep them quiet and make sure they have to work hard on defence rather than on attack.
The Hurricanes are a bit like the Lions were up front in that they don’t have many Test forwards in their tight five, but they are all hard-working and carry well. Dane Coles will obviously be crucial if he plays because he provides them with physical aggression and obviously his throwing is at a different level.
The Tongan Bear, Loni Uhila, always takes quick taps as well, but sometimes it’s under the poles and it can take points away from the Hurricanes!
For the Lions, a guy like Franco Mostert has a very high work-rate and it would be great if Warren Whiteley can play in the final as well. He’s been a wonderful captain, he’s been through thick and thin with the Lions and it would be fitting for him to be there. He has such a high work-rate as well and between him, Jaco Kriel and Warwick Tecklenburg, they can make the tackles if the Hurricanes carry the ball at them.
The Lions A team haven’t played at sea level since April 23 against the Kings in Port Elizabeth, but I think the final will be very close and it will come down to a moment of brilliance, like Rohan Janse van Rensburg’s try in the semifinal after that turnover tackle by Elton Jantjies.
John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012-15, having won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.