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Ken Borland



John McFarland Column – How the Lions turned around their SuperRugby semifinal 0

Posted on August 01, 2017 by Ken

 

 

In the last 45 minutes of their SuperRugby semi-final, the Lions beat the Hurricanes 41-7, which is a phenomenal achievement against the defending champions and a truly top-quality side.

Altitude was certainly a big factor and you could see the Hurricanes fading away, but the way the Lions set up their amazing comeback was highly impressive.

There were things they definitely needed to do better from the first half, starting with their first-phase defence. They were caught out with a simple second-man play from a lineout for the Wes Goosen try, when there were a couple of misreads, and the turnovers in their own half also provided the Hurricanes with position and points.

There was a lot of long kicking at the start of the game and very few contestable kicks, so there wasn’t a lot of counter-attacking either, with both teams playing safety-first rugby, and the Hurricanes generally capitalising on Lions’ mistakes exiting in their own half.

When the Lions carried the ball, they generally went close to the ruck, either in channel one or on the blindside, attacking the pillars. This did not give the Hurricanes defence the chance to rush, and even though the Lions did not get much momentum and made a few mistakes and turnovers, it kept the Hurricanes tight five making tackles, and by the end of the match they were stuffed, the wind had been taken out of their sails.

The turning point in the match came when Jaco Kriel made a steal just before halftime on halfway, when the Hurricanes had first-phase ball from a lineout. He got in over the ball, the Lions won the penalty and they went for position.

The previous time they had won a penalty in a similar position, they went for the tap-and-run which in hindsight was the wrong decision. But it came from the frustration the players on the outside would have been feeling because they weren’t in the game and someone obviously felt the space was there to attack. No player takes a tap just on their own volition, there would have been a call from someone else.

Jaco Kriel is such a warrior, he never gives up and he has a really tough streak, which influences the whole of the team. I felt that important steal totally changed the momentum of the game as it gave the Lions field position which led to the try just before halftime. The Hurricanes forwards just could not fold into position after a couple of lineout drives and in the end Jacques van Rooyen barged over to bring the Lions back into the game.

The Hurricanes had all the possession and territory in the first half, but the second half was all Lions. Their scrum was dominant enough to gain penalties to gain field position in the 22 for lineout mauls.

I felt the Hurricanes yellow card was very harsh. Beauden Barrett definitely rolled away, but the ball squirted out on his side and into his legs. It was definitely a penalty, but with their flyhalf and main general off the field, the Hurricanes fell apart and the game really opened up for the Lions.

They converted their field position into points well and were ruthless in terms of their lineout maul. It takes a fair amount of numbers to stop them setting it up and driving, so that opened up other options for them as well off the lineout.

The big thing though was that the belief was there in the Lions team and you have to also give credit to their whole coaching staff. And Cash [Ivan van Rooyen], their conditioning coach, is their real unsung hero. Against the New Zealand teams, it’s always in the last 20 minutes that they come back so strongly, but the Lions actually dominated the final quarter, which shows they are in tip-top shape.

In terms of defence, it was very difficult to go around the Lions with Andries Coetzee coming into the line very early as the extra man. That does leave them vulnerable at the back, but the Hurricanes weren’t able to get kick-passes or grubbers in behind.

And the Lions scored some really well-worked tries. Especially the one where their centres set things up and their loose forwards finished out wide. Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe have the size in midfield, and then they have the pace of Jaco Kriel and Kwagga Smith out wide to finish.

I thought Franco Mostert was immense and is really starting to look like a world-class lock, and his two consecutive lineout steals in the first half were crucial in keeping the Lions in the game.

The biggest compliment one can pay Malcolm Marx is that he did not lose anything to Dane Coles, who is possibly the best hooker in the world. A long Springbok career lies ahead of Malcolm and we are blessed to have someone of that size starting their international career so early.

In the final, however, the Crusaders will be a totally different kettle of fish to the Hurricanes. They have a number of All Blacks, especially in the tight five, and world-class back-row forwards. They have some of the best players in the world in Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Owen Franks, they are second to none and they all play in key areas.

So there’s going to be a lot more pressure on the Lions at the scrum and lineout. While the Hurricanes stayed down against the Lions lineout, which gave them a lot more latitude, the Crusaders will definitely compete.

I thought the Crusaders were very clinical in their semi-final against the Chiefs, even though they also don’t compete much at the breakdown (apart from Ryan Crotty), they concentrate on having numbers of defenders on their feet. That will mean a lot of free ball for the Lions, which is a big risk at altitude.

The key moment in that semi-final was the Tim Nanai-Williams grubber try and a great call by the TMO to cancel out even though Damian McKenzie was shaping for the conversion. It’s important to get those decisions right in matches like that and it was correct.

It’s great that the final will be a sell-out crowd and a great way for Johan Ackermann to finish his tenure at the Lions.

The Lions have now got a lot of belief and confidence and I think they will emerge as the 2017 SuperRugby champions. It has proven nigh-on impossible for a team to win a SuperRugby final outside their own country, never mind crossing the Indian Ocean. I think it will be done at some time, but hopefully not this weekend.

 

 

John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland 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.

 

 

John McFarland Column: How to beat the All Blacks 0

Posted on July 12, 2017 by Ken

 

It was an enthralling final Test between the All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions, and a tremendous achievement for the visitors to draw a series in New Zealand. Every international coach will have looked at the three Tests and will take something from them – it has shown it is possible to beat the All Blacks.

So how did the Lions achieve this?

Firstly, their defence over the three Tests was superb, so hats off to the Farrell family.

It’s no coincidence that most of New Zealand’s losses over the last few years have been caused by a rush defence and a high line speed, so Lions, England and Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell should really take a bow – he has now enjoyed three wins and a draw against the All Blacks since 2013.

And then there was his son Owen’s kicking. None of his kicks at goal in the last Test were gimmes and it was very interesting to see that even with Jonny Sexton, who has such a high success rate in his kicking record, at flyhalf, the Lions went with Farrell for goalkicking and that’s what made the difference in the end.

The All Blacks were disciplined in their own 22, but were prepared to give away penalties further away from their line, and Farrell kept the Lions in the game.

It was the defence that was able to disrupt the New Zealand attacking structure, they weren’t really able to go forward or get the ball wide, because the Lions totally dominated the gain-line and the rush-defence took time and space away from Beauden Barrett. But it didn’t operate from a tight base, the wings were on the second-last runners and would not always engage, sometimes they would back off on to the last runner, therefore there was no kicking space behind them.

The Lions also chose two openside flanks who were a real nuisance at the breakdown.

The biggest thing about the rush-defence is that it means you are so square in the tackle, you line up your man and come forward, there’s no shifting. The Lions tackling was very confrontational, they didn’t really hit the legs but tended to be just under the ball. This forced more errors and led to dominance in the tackle; a softer defence relies on leg-tackles and a confrontational rush-defence on chest tackles. You can see it unnerved the All Blacks and with the quality of defenders the Lions had – players like Jonathan Davies, Maro Itoje, Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien – the system totally suited them.

The shift put in by the Lions forwards at the coalface was also amazing and New Zealand could not get any offloads or tip-passes going at all. The Lions cleverly took out the support players, so the ball was wide open at the breakdowns. The quality of the tackles and the athletes involved meant that on the tip-ons, they frequently took the passer out of play, which exposed the ball-carrier and then the turnover could happen.

What was especially interesting to me was that New Zealand just could not get the ball to the outside channels in space, and even if they tried, Barrett was frequently standing still and then it was easy for the Lions to pick off the carriers.

The way to break down the rush-defence is through the kick-pass and offloading from contact and it’s no coincidence that the All Blacks scored from this.

The Lions also relied tremendously on Conor Murray’s box-kicking. There was no messing around here – they would maul or box-kick immediately from the restart and that put pressure on the New Zealand wings, thanks to the quality of Murray’s kicking and exits.

For me, Murray was the real star of the series, his tactical control was superb; him kicking contestables meant the All Blacks never had a chance to counter-attack or get the ball back from the Lions back three with running bombs.

The New Zealand attack was very static. They wanted a two-sided attack against the rush-defence, but they played a lot of one-pass rugby, which made it quite easy to defend.

One of the key moments of the final Test was the chase back of Davies on Ngani Laumape after Barrett’s intercept, it was just superb. It was a series-turning moment and the other players get really excited when they see that sort of attitude and commitment from a team-mate.

It was an enthralling finish to the series, but it’s a pity to see such a great Test end with all the focus on Mr Roman Poite.

His eccentricities have been exposed even before Eden Park last weekend: there was the red card he gave Bismarck du Plessis at Eden Park in 2013, his performance in the World Cup and against Argentina in 2014 when there were seven water-carriers on the field during a stoppage and he allowed the Pumas to take a quick tap, which resulted in a try just before halftime. The last defender in the Springbok backline was our physio, Rene Naylor!

It was good, though, that Poite reviewed the incident at the end of last weekend’s game and I think Craig Joubert will be wishing he had done the same in 2015 in the Scotland v Australia game at the World Cup. That’s what the TMO is there for and at least Poite used it. But rugby has to eliminate these grey areas because referees have to make hard decisions in a very short time.

I thought Poite was also really poor in the lineouts, there was taking out of jumpers left, right and centre, it was like a free-for-all. New Zealand also seemed to have some dominance in that final scrum and there could have been a penalty to them, but again he opted out.

The All Blacks ended up playing a lot of guys with just a handful of caps, which is not what you want in high-pressured Tests. Injuries and Sonny Bill Williams’ self-inflicted absence obviously affected them and you want more caps for the big games like last weekend. They ended with Laumape at 12 and Anton Lienert-Brown at 13 and they are actually both inside centres, both confrontational and direct. The Lions started with a similar sort of player in Ben Te’o, but then switched to Sexton and Farrell and had far more ball-playing ability to stretch the All Blacks.

One has to credit coach Warren Gatland for wearing his red nose with pride. He might just hang around and is probably very excited about a third tour with the Lions, against the Springboks in 2021.

It will be interesting to see whether the Springboks pick Cheetahs or Kings players for that tour because it will be the end of their season in Europe!

 

 

John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland 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.

In praise of the Lions: The John McFarland Column 0

Posted on May 17, 2017 by Ken

 

What a fantastic achievement by the Lions to win all three of their SuperRugby games overseas, for any rugby team to do that is an unbelievable effort and they continue to do really well in terms of the competition standings.

I think this is the first time a South African team have been unbeaten on their overseas tour and the bonus points they gained, to score the tries they did and to defend so securely was superb, and credit must go to the coaching staff as a whole.

Not that long ago, it was virtually impossible for a South African team to win against the Brumbies in Canberra and that could be the result that gives the Lions a great shout of hosting a home final. They can now top the log and go all the way, playing New Zealand sides at 3pm on the Highveld in the knockouts.

It was certainly a memorable moment when they managed to steal the ball for a turnover and what pace Kwagga Smith showed to finish!

For those criticising the way the Lions have been playing, you never play your best away from home, you just have to make sure you win. And you can’t be at your best every week in SuperRugby, it’s impossible, and it’s important to win when you’re playing badly.

This weekend the Lions will look forward to hosting a Bulls team low on confidence and belief at Ellis Park.

The Bulls were certainly better last weekend against the Highlanders. Although the conditions were a great leveller, they showed fight and character and it was a good turnaround which showed what they can achieve when they put their minds to it. There was also a huge improvement in their defence.

The Bulls have so many good players and they will see a chance to play against the Lions as a great opportunity; there is always a bit more passion and intensity in the local derbies. It is a very young Bulls side though, and they will need to match the Lions in the set-pieces. Obviously the scrums are crucial because the Lions will certainly attack them there, and the Bulls will also need to stop the lineout drive. Then they need to deal with the Lions’ game-breaking backs, although the Bulls also have a dangerous backline.

I fully expect the Stormers to beat the Blues back in Cape Town after their rest. The start will be key for the Stormers because they don’t have so much confidence now, but if they can get back to how they were playing before going overseas, then there’s no reason why they can’t beat the Blues. Their biggest challenge is going to be that they have to defend a lot better.

You’ve also got to take your hats off to the Southern Kings, who have no budget but are certainly playing with high confidence at the moment, and it was a really good performance to beat the Sharks with four tries to two. It was encouraging to see they’ve got the reward of four guys being named in the last Springbok training squad.

But the only South African team that has really performed to their potential has been the Lions, so you would think they will form the bulk of the final Springbok squad to be announced next week. The Sharks have recently lost to the Kings and drawn with the Rebels, the Stormers have lost four successive matches and the Bulls and Cheetahs are also on big losing streaks, so there is not a lot of confidence amongst the other players in South Africa.

But we’ve been like this before – in 2015 we struggled in SuperRugby but ended up losing by just two points to the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final. The players get excited about being in a different environment and representing their country.

The Stormers locks are world-class and proven Test players need to play, plus there are special considerations around making the squad representative, so there are a lot of variables, one can’t just choose all the Lions players.

The positive, though, is that two of the Tests against France will be played on the Highveld, so it’s an opportunity to pick more Gauteng players who are used to the conditions and the quick tempo of play.

France will bring a gigantic pack and big midfield backs, they certainly like to play ball-in-hand and they have an offload game centred around Louis Picamoles. So Allister Coetzee needs to pick the right combinations to stop that, which is always the challenge in selection – it’s like putting together a fine potjie, making sure the blend is right is most important and you’re always going to use some tried and tested frontline Test players.

It will be interesting to see who Coetzee picks from overseas, some of them have had a very long, hard, arduous season in the French playoffs or the English Premiership. You need continuity and if guys are based overseas it makes it difficult because you have so little time together as a team anyway. For me, I would only use guys who qualify to play after the 30-caps criterion comes into force after July 1.

As far as Jan Serfontein goes, if there’s an emergency then obviously Allister will use him, and the Springboks definitely need size and experience in midfield.

With all the injuries, it looks like Elton Jantjies will get an extended run at flyhalf, and it will be a make-or-break series for him.

 

 

John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland 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.



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