for quality writing

Ken Borland

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.

Lions have earned universal respect despite failing to make playoffs 0

Posted on November 24, 2016 by Ken


The Lions may have failed to make the SuperRugby playoffs after their dramatic weekend draw against the Stormers, but the Johannesburg-based franchise has certainly earned the respect of all their opponents this season.

Just two years after they were controversially relegated from SuperRugby, the Lions have clinched second place in the South African Conference and boast an almost identical record to the Brumbies, who have snuck into the playoffs ahead of them because of bonus points.

They have maintained their positive style of play with ball in hand, but where they have improved most is defensively, boasting the best tackling success rate in the competition. The Lions play at the highest tempo of all the South African sides as they swarm around in defence and always have great intensity on the ball. Their powerful scrum has provided a solid platform and their lineout has also been efficient.

“It’s all about playing with intensity and hunger, and we have to up our performance every week. There are plans in place, but I also allow the guys to be free spirits and you have to live with the small mistakes that come from that,” coach Johan Ackermann says. “Obviously I’m very proud of the team, it must be one of our best years and it shows that hard work is worth it.”

The Lions have certainly deserved all the praise that has come their way, beating the qualified Waratahs and Highlanders in the last five weeks and showing all season that they are never out of the contest with some superb second-half comebacks.

“There’s great belief within this side, a real hunger. We want to close down the opposition’s space and put them under pressure. We’ve built our physicality in defence, we want to be in their faces and not stand back,” captain Warren Whiteley says.

Their impressive performances have seen several of their players grow into Springbok contenders. The most likely Lions player to feature in Heyneke Meyer’s Springbok World Cup squad is flyhalf Elton Jantjies, who dares to take the ball flat and attack the opposition line, has superb hands and is a strong defender, as well as kicking well this season.

Eighthman Whiteley is competing with Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger for a place at the World Cup, but he gets through a mound of work and is the only player in SuperRugby this year to have made more than 200 tackles, while also being highly effective in a linking role, possessing great skill and vision as befits a Springbok Sevens player who helped win the Commonwealth Games gold medal last year.

He is also adept at interfering with the opposition lineout, where Franco Mostert has also been a key performer for the Lions, as well as in the loose.

Warwick Tecklenburg has been outstanding in doing all the Lions’ dirty work, being second only to Whiteley in terms of tackles made, but fellow flank Jaco Kriel has been the most impressive forward.

A constant nuisance at the breakdown, he oozes raw talent in offence, having phenomenal pace, strength and hands, and has more often than not been able to spark the most sensational counter-attacks by the Lions.

Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe have proved to be two powerful centres, while scrumhalf Faf de Klerk and wing Ruan Combrinck are two other backs who have announced themselves as future Springboks this year.

Despite their success over the last two years, Ackermann says at the moment they are just playing pretty rugby and haven’t won anything yet, there is more growing to do.

“We can look back on a good season regardless of missing the playoffs. The players know where they stand with me and they know my expectation on deserving the jersey. As long as they do that, I can’t ask for more. The growth from last year is definitely there, but there is still a lot of work to do.

“Nobody has achieved anything yet. We are not in the playoffs, we haven’t won the Currie Cup yet, we haven’t won any trophies yet. But if you ask me if there is a lot of growth, both for me as coach and for the team, then definitely if you look where we started in January 2014 until where we are now,” Ackermann says.


Never-say-die Titans salvage epic draw v Lions 0

Posted on April 11, 2016 by Ken


The bravest of batting efforts by the never-say-die Unlimited Titans saw them salvage an epic draw in their Sunfoil Series match against the bizhub Highveld Lions at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Sunday, ensuring that they will go into the last weekend of the competition in prime position to claim the title.

The Titans were forced to follow on 379 runs behind the Lions and Pumelela Matshikwe’s deadly four-wicket burst just before lunch seemed to have condemned them to an innings defeat as they stumbled into the break on 219 for five.

But the tenacious Dean Elgar produced one of the finest innings of his career to bat for nine hours and score an epic 173, Qaasim Adams (71 not out in 263 minutes) and Marchant de Lange (23 not out in 85 minutes) providing immense support as the game died a natural death with the Titans having erased the deficit and scored 385 for six. By denying the second-placed Lions the 10 points for a win, the Titans will take a 12.62-point lead into the final round.

Matshikwe, probing and accurate, was superb, taking six for 58 in 31 overs and used the inconsistent bounce and a worn area outside the right-hander’s off stump from the West Lane End, that caused the ball to jag back, brilliantly.

Hardus Viljoen and Dwaine Pretorius were also threats when the ball was newer and harder, but left-arm spinner Bjorn Fortuin toiled through 31 overs on the dry pitch without success.

Test opener Elgar brought tremendous determination and a savvy game plan to the final day, but he could not have rescued the game without the help of Adams. The 31-year-old was left out of the team at some stages in the first half of the summer as the Titans tried to balance their team, but he has become an absolutely key batsman and his average in the four-day competition is now 69.66 after knocks of 73 and 71 not out against the defending champions.

The Titans began the final day on 156 for one and Elgar and Grant Mokoena survived the first hour without much interference. But that was before the introduction of Matshikwe, who clings to a line-and-length with steely determination.

Matshikwe bowled Mokoena for 27, a gutsy two-and-a-half hour knock which was ended when the batsman inside-edged a cut into his stumps.

Mokoena’s dismissal did not disrupt Elgar’s focus and the left-hander went to his 16th Sunfoil Series century and second of the season, after five hours and 17 minutes at the crease, having already faced 232 balls.

Matshikwe’s two overs from the West Lane End immediately before lunch were what undermined the Titans innings so terribly, as he used the deteriorating surface to great effect.

Theunis de Bruyn (7) was the victim of an umpiring error as he was given out caught behind off the sleeve under his arm, but Mangaliso Mosehle, who completed a disheartening pair, and Henry Davids were both comprehensively beaten and bowled for ducks by Matshikwe.

Mosehle played around his first delivery and lost his off stump as the ball nipped back, and Davids shouldered arms and was bowled as the ball jagged back a long way off the crack.

That brought Elgar and Adams together and, after playing out the over-and-a-half before lunch they set about dominating the afternoon. The left-handers were not as vulnerable to Matshikwe’s favoured area but they both had to show tremendous defensive technique and concentration as they added 110 for the sixth wicket, facing 254 balls and taking three hours out of the game.

They reached 282 for five and a fascinating contest developed between Elgar and Fortuin: the batsman would often advance and hit the spinner straight down the ground, but the 21-year-old seemed to have made a key breakthrough for the Lions when Elgar got himself into a tangle and seemed to have offered a bat/pad catch.

The umpire turned the appeal down though and Elgar and Adams notched a century partnership and took the Titans past 300.

Matshikwe returned though and claimed the wicket of Elgar, who pushed hard down the ground, but the angle from around the wicket took the ball on to the inside edge and Dominic Hendricks took a diving bat/pad catch from short mid-off.

There were still at least 25 overs left to be bowled when De Lange came in. He is normally a no-frills belter of the ball, but the Titans are chasing a trophy and he had to change his game plan.

He did a superb job with Adams, defending stoutly but taking the runs when they were on offer, another 59 runs being added as the home side survived a tense final day to ensure they are the favourites for the four-day title.

As well as the Lions played, they will be disappointed that they could not bowl the Titans out on the final day – injured wrist-spinner Eddie Leie was missed and the lack of a reverse-swing option also hurt them.

SuperRugby preview 0

Posted on July 15, 2015 by Ken



Coach – Former Bath and Kobe Steelers coach GARY GOLD has brought a fresh approach to player management and an emphasis on more attacking play since taking over from Jake White, who left the Sharks at the end of September at a crucial stage of the Currie Cup. The current Montpellier coach left Durban in something of a pall, the fans not happy with a territory-dominated game plan and the players and other coaches not enjoying White’s abrasive management style.


Top Players – The Sharks probably have the most star-studded team of the South African Conference, starting with the first-choice Springbok front row of Tendai Mtawarira, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, the exciting lock pairing of up-and-coming Pieter-Steph du Toit and experienced former Saracens and England player Mouritz Botha, a loose trio headlined by Springboks Willem Alberts and Marcell Coetzee, the incumbent Springbok halfback pair of Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie, and plenty of quality outside them in former Racing Metro centre Francois Steyn, and JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo on the wings.


Captain – BISMARCK DU PLESSIS is arguably the best hooker in the world and a talismanic figure for both the Springboks and the Sharks with the huge physical presence he brings to the game. The veteran of 70 Tests turns 31 in May, but he will want to show he has many golden years ahead of him.


Last year – The Sharks won the South African Conference but finished third on the final round-robin log following crucial late defeats at the hands of the lowly Stormers and Cheetahs which cost them the home semi-final they always seemed to be heading for. That condemned them to a quarterfinal against the Highlanders before travelling to Christchurch to play the Crusaders, who romped home 38-6 in the semi-final. Many critics blamed the Sharks’ “stone-age game-plan” for their failure to turn their forward dominance through most of the campaign into a home semi-final.


This year – The Sharks, with almost all of their stars returning to action and some valuable additions to their squad, are obviously amongst the favourites to win the title. The more positive approach of Gold, plus the input of tactical guru Brendan Venter, should make them even more of a threat this year. But the effects of change can also be disruptive and how well the Sharks adapt remains to be seen.





Coach – The demands of the fickle supporters in the Western Cape have finally had their toll on ALLISTER COETZEE and the former Springbok assistant coach will head to Japan to replace Gary Gold at the Kobe Steelers at the end of the SuperRugby season. Western Province, basically the Stormers minus their Springboks, are the Currie Cup champions, but the Stormers have always offered much in the southern hemisphere competition without delivering the goods. Since reaching the final in 2010 and the semi-finals in 2011 and 2012, they have slipped down the standings to seventh in 2013 and a parlous 11th last year, their worst finish since 2006. So the pressure is on Coetzee to finish his five-year stint as head coach on a high.


Top players – The Stormers have rectified their former ills by assembling a powerful pack that includes stars such as prop Frans Malherbe, one of the best loose trios in the competition in Schalk Burger, Nizaam Carr and Duane Vermeulen, and two tremendous locks in Eben Etzebeth and former Biarritz star Manuel Carizza, who has 44 Test caps for Argentina. Given enough ball, backs like Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende and Cheslin Kolbe certainly have the ability to beat opposing defences.


Captain – It is probably only a matter of time till DUANE VERMEULEN becomes the Springbok captain and the SA Player of the Year for 2014 will lead from the front in trying to make Newlands one of the toughest lairs of all. An indefatigable eighthman, Vermeulen is a powerful force with ball in hand, a steely defender and a potent force at the breakdown, as well as being a natural leader.


Last year – The Stormers had little to smile about in their 2014 campaign, the highlights being their wins over the Sharks and Bulls at the back-end of the competition that effectively messed up the chances of their South African rivals. They were hard hit by injuries up front but also struggled to match the tempo of play set by overseas opposition.


This year – The Stormers looked a different side in winning eight of their 10 Currie Cup matches and claiming the title in a dramatic final, upping the pace of their play, looking to keep ball in hand more and generally playing more positive rugby, all with an eye on this year’s SuperRugby campaign. Their coaching staff have put a particular emphasis on conditioning as they believe the game has changed into a much more high-intensity affair and they certainly seem better equipped for a title challenge this year.





Coach – Patience could well start running out for coach FRANS LUDEKE, who at times last season sounded like a broken record as he bemoaned his side’s poor execution and utter failure to get results away from home. But the momentum of the three previous years that saw the rebuilding Bulls rise from seventh to fifth to second on the log was broken by poor contracting of players that saw a raft of first-choice stars leave Loftus Versfeld, forcing Ludeke to start the rebuilding process again.


Top players – With Handre Pollard pulling the strings at flyhalf, and Jan Serfontein next to him, the Bulls are hopeful of being a much more effective attacking force this year. The pack has been boosted by former Cheetahs stars Lappies Labuschagne, Trevor Nyakane and Adriaan Strauss electing to play their rugby with the Bulls this year. With Springboks Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Marcel van der Merwe and Deon Stegmann also up front, the backs should have plenty of front-foot ball to play with.


Captain – PIERRE SPIES has plenty of pressure to deal with this year: Not only does he need to meet the expectations created by the proud tradition of Bulls rugby, with their last major trophy coming five years ago, but he is also struggling to regain his place in the Springbok squad ahead of the World Cup. Spies, who has not played much rugby over the last two years due to injury, sometimes seem caught between the more traditional eighthman style of play that suits his former life as a wing, and the more robust, tighter approach the Bulls’ game plan seems to favour.


Last year – Already ravaged by the exodus of unhappy players to foreign clubs, the Bulls were then hard-hit by injuries to key loose forwards Botha, Spies and Stegmann. But they were even harder-hit by their self-inflicted sorrows away from home, crucial errors seeing them fail to win a single game on the road. Their only blemish at home came when they were held to a draw by the Chiefs, but by losing away games to the Lions and Stormers in the closing weeks of the competition, they dropped out of playoff contention and finished ninth.


This year – There is more optimism about the Bulls’ chances this year because they have focused on developing a more expansive style of play, they have been willing to spend some money in obtaining three key players from the Cheetahs, and surely their top players will stay injury-free this year and actually be able to play more rugby.





Coach – NAKA DROTSKE has been at the helm of the Cheetahs since the 2007 season and has only managed to steer his side into the top-10 once, in 2013. But the gains of that year were reversed in embarrassing fashion last year as the Cheetahs tumbled to 14th on the log and the former Free State captain was sent to the United Kingdom to study new coaching techniques. The pressure is clearly on Drotske.


Top players – Newly-capped Springboks Lood de Jager and Oupa Mohoje provide the spark amongst the pack, while prop Coenie Oosthuizen weds plenty of physicality with surprising mobility and skill at the breakdown. Willie le Roux and Cornal Hendricks provide plenty of joy with their lovely attacking skills at the back, but there were hints towards the end of last year that the honeymoon might be over for them as defences grow wise to their tricks.


Captain – Loyal lock FRANCOIS UYS has exchanged his status as a stalwart performer in the pack for the captain’s armband this year. A hard-working 28-year-old, Uys does not shy away from the physical battle up front, but also has useful ball-skills suiting the free-flowing style of rugby the Cheetahs prefer.


Last year – The Cheetahs did well on attack, playing some thrilling rugby as they scored 37 tries. But their defence was full of holes and conceding 58 tries and an average of 33 points per match saw them plummet from sixth in 2013 to second-last in 2014. Despite the talent available to them and their enthusiasm for positive rugby, the Cheetahs were not well-coached last year.


This year – With their coach almost at the exit door and key players such as Racing Metro flyhalf Johan Goosen, hooker Adriaan Strauss, prop Trevor Nyakane and flank Lappies Labuschagne already gone, it is hard to see the Cheetahs finishing anywhere but in the bottom handful of teams.




Coach – Former Springbok lock JOHAN ACKERMANN comes across as a genial giant, ever polite and humble, and this has led to a far happier camp at Ellis Park. But he is far more than just a pretty face as evidenced by his ability to get the best out of relatively limited resources. The Lions have not only produced the results under his leadership but have played attractive rugby while impressing with their forward play, especially their scrummaging.


Top players – While his squad does not boast any superstars, Ackermann has reason to be chuffed by the development of his players over the last 18 months. Critically, he has a powerful front row anchored by Julian Redelinghuys, tremendous loose forwards in Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Derick Minnie, and two Springbok flyhalves in Marnitz Boshoff and Elton Jantjies.


Captain – At times WARREN WHITELEY seems too skilful, pacy and innovative to be a Springbok forward and he has been a driving force behind the Lions’ high-tempo style of play. Hugely popular as a leader, he is also highly-respected, especially overseas, as a player.


Last year – The Lions marked their return to SuperRugby with a highly-commendable 12th-place finish, winning a franchise record seven games. Given that they had no high-profile players after being cast into the SuperRugby wilderness in 2013, many are still wondering how they managed to do it. The answer is simple: through determination, tremendous belief, commitment, passion and pride, work ethic, positive intent with ball in hand and technical accuracy up front.


This year – The Lions did all that could have been expected and more in the Currie Cup, suggesting that this team is continuing to grow and improve. They do have a challenging draw this year, however, going on tour in Week Four – they did struggle overseas in 2014 – and only having a bye in Round 10.


↑ Top