The Lions’ scrum was superlative against the Crusaders in their SuperRugby quarterfinal and I think it will be one of the key things they will use against the Highlanders in their semifinal this weekend.
They really put the Crusaders under pressure in the scrums and that’s against an All Blacks tight five, so that’s very encouraging for the Lions’ championship hopes.
Their scrum is a destructive weapon and it will be one of the keys against the Highlanders, as well as mauling well.
The Highlanders don’t have the same quality forwards as the Crusaders do, but they do have explosive backs and if the Lions don’t kick for distance then there will be problems for them, they will find themselves under a lot of pressure around their own 22.
Ben Smith is so good at counter-attacking, he’s the best in the world at it for me, ahead of Israel Folau. He will run the ball back and he has a tremendous ability to step, find gaps and beat people.
The one negative about the Lions team is the distance they get on their relieving kicks and that’s at altitude, they might have to take that to sea level if the final is in Wellington. You compare their kicking against the Crusaders to the quality of Beauden Barrett’s tactical kicking in a gale in Wellington and you can see that will be a concern in an away final. Every South African will be praying the Chiefs win that semifinal against the Hurricanes.
The Highlanders are a very different New Zealand team in that they have a very strong kicking game thanks to Lima Sopoaga and Aaron Smith.
Sopoaga is very clever with his little chips which always seem to find space, while Aaron is a superb tactical kicker and takes responsibility for it. Having a kicker at scrumhalf means the chase line is right on top of you, so the kicks are normally contestable. Aaron always kicks off at the restarts and the Highlanders have two big wings who are very good in the air, when Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo are running at you, you know you’re going to go backwards!
So field position still has a huge influence and top teams turn that into points. The Lions got away with not having much territory against the Crusaders because they were very disciplined, they didn’t give a lot away, and they built a score early on so the Crusaders were under pressure. Those two early tries took the wind out of the Crusaders and they had to chase the game from the start.
It’s typical of that Lions team, they have come through such adversity. It’s a tremendous story, most of their players were rejected somewhere else, they weren’t the first choices when they were 19 or 20 years old.
Franco Mostert was at the Bulls for four or five years and didn’t get the opportunity, and now he’s a player the Lions rally around. Warwick Tecklenburg also didn’t make it at the Bulls and he’s really matured as a player.
A lot of them have also spent seasons overseas, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe and Tecklenburg have all played in Japan. So a guy like Elton gets coaching from Swys de Bruin but also from someone like Rob Penney at NTT Shining Arcs, who used to coach Canterbury.
The way Malcolm Marx has progressed is very pleasing for me because I worked with him before. He used to drive for an hour to Pretoria to come throw for an hour and then drive back on his off day, because there was a perception in his junior days that his lineout throwing wasn’t good. He’s worked so hard and that’s what people don’t appreciate about this Lions team.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg is tearing up trees now but he also played Vodacom Cup for the Blue Bulls and look at how he is playing now. Andries Coetzee was also at the Bulls as a junior and was released, even though he had that big left foot even then.
The Lions have played together consistently, they’re very grounded as a group. Most of them actually live in Pretoria and are up at 5.30 every morning so they can be at the Lions by 6.30. Johan Ackermann and JP Ferreira get up at 4.30am! So they are a very hard-working bunch.
But the keys this weekend will be for them to use their scrum and to maul well, and to kick more contestable balls. They can’t give the Highlanders time on the ball, the defence must be on top of them, and the Lions have been defending very well, plus their back row are all stealers of the ball and Malcolm Marx is like a fourth loose forward. The Lions need to raise the tempo, like they did when they carved up the Crusaders midfield.
In terms of the other quarterfinals, the Stormers were such a disappointment and they have lost so many playoff games now, and convincingly at that and at home! So they have to look at their preparation. Their generals against the Chiefs, Robert du Preez and Jaco Taute, just haven’t played enough rugby this year.
To say they were taken by surprise by the extra intensity of the New Zealand sides is a weak excuse. The Stormers should have had that intensity and enthusiasm playing at home in a playoff game and it was Schalk Burger’s last appearance at Newlands.
The Chiefs did play really well, you have to give them credit, but I don’t think not playing a New Zealand side before was that relevant for the Stormers.
The wheels have really come off the Sharks since the June Tests, they’re not the same side they were before that. What was most disappointing about their loss to the Hurricanes was that they showed so little ambition. They just had the maul, pick-and-go and kick, they never used their Springboks back three.
The Hurricanes played well, Beauden Barrett kicked superbly, but the Sharks never fired a shot, that’s what was really concerning.
For the South African teams to concede 17 tries in their three playoff games is a big worry.
I would say the Hurricanes/Chiefs semifinal is a 50/50 game, although the Hurricanes are without Dane Coles, who is their talisman as captain, he’s full of energy and he rallies the team. The Hurricanes lineout will be under intense pressure from Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird and they don’t have their first-choice hooker. So that game could go either way.
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.