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Ken Borland



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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