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Ken Borland

The John McFarland Column: Lions’ efforts deserve Test selection 0

Posted on June 01, 2017 by Ken


The Springboks are back in camp and it will be interesting to see the team for the French Tests, two of which will be played at altitude, so it will definitely be an advantage to pick players that are full of confidence and successful on the Highveld.

There’s only one team that has been playing with real conviction and confidence, though, and that is the Lions, so I expect a few debutants from them over the course of the series. It will be a well-deserved honour and credit to their coaches, Johan Ackermann, Swys de Bruin and JP Ferreira.

The Lions’ 54-10 win over the Southern Kings showed that the difference in strength is vast between them and the other South African teams and they now have a great run-in towards the SuperRugby playoffs. They deserve it after winning three games overseas and they are reaping the rewards in confidence and the way they are playing.

It’s sad for SuperRugby that the playoff places are mostly already sorted out, especially in South Africa. It always used to go down to the last weekend and a very exciting final day of round-robin play. Anyway, it’s a huge advantage to finish first on the log and the Crusaders are three points clear of the Lions as our pacesetters go into the international break.

The Crusaders have some tough New Zealand derbies coming up though, including having to travel to the Hurricanes.

So I believe Rudolf Straeuli, the Lions CEO, can’t wait to pencil in 3pm playoff games on the Highveld. If you speak to the Highlanders players they will tell you that their legs felt like jelly during their semi-final at Ellis Park last year, they just could not get going, and that’s a side packed with All Blacks that lost 30-42.

The Lions will definitely have earned that advantage via their performances, especially their tremendous run of 15 unbeaten games against South African opposition.

Most of the Lions players have been let go by other franchises or picked up from other unions, so you have to credit their hard work and improvement. Guys like Andries Coetzee and Courtnall Skosan were playing for Tuks in 2012/13, while Franco Mostert was also part of that side and nobody has worked harder for their Springbok opportunity, so I’m sure he’ll take it with both hands.

A guy like Ross Cronje has worked really hard on his game, he’s been the second-choice at the Lions a lot of the time, but he kept his belief and keeps producing the goods, so his selection is also fully deserved.

It was really pleasing to see Warren Whiteley appointed as the new Springbok captain, he’s a really honest player and always totally committed on the field. You can never accuse Warren of shirking anything, whether that be in terms of workload or skill.

He was with the Sharks as a junior and was a very explosive, impact player who could really cause damage in the wide channels in the last 20 minutes. He has become a dominant captain who epitomises all that his Lions team stands for in terms of culture.

Warren is a superb lineout option and also has safe hands at the back, which is important because it’s vital these days for eighthmen to be able to counter-attack. He brings his Sevens skills to bear.

His journey to the Springbok captaincy has not been easy, he has worked so hard to get there and thoroughly deserves the honour.

The Springboks are heading into a phase of more inclusive leadership, Warren will take notice of the opinions around him and has great empathy. But he showed when he first came into the Springbok group in 2014 that he is strong enough to have his own ideas, he knows the path forward and will not just follow the party line, he will make sure he drives his own opinions. He’s also a great communicator, with the coaches and the playing group.

I wish him all the success he deserves and wouldn’t it be nice for him to have the Rugby Championship trophy in his hands in October?

And Duane Vermeulen playing at seven will definitely work, in terms of their defensive system, they want a blindside flank who can do a lot more when it comes to work-rate. I think the eighthman will stay at a lot of the set-pieces and save his energy for attack and ball-in-hand play.

Duane of course will be in France for the Top 14 final with Toulon and will only have a couple of days training with the Springboks after flying back to South Africa, which is why Jean-Luc du Preez has been called up.

The Sharks v Stormers game showed the difference in strength between the two conferences. The Stormers just could not get that final pass or offload away, which, given their style of play, is essential for them.

Under new coach Robbie Fleck, they’re always going to be involved in high-scoring games, but they need to convert their chances. One has to credit the Sharks for their defence holding firm, which bodes well for the Springboks.

I felt there was some improvement from the Bulls, they were far more physical at the gain-line. There’s obviously been a change in the coaching staff there, which possibly produced the improved display, but unfortunately it was not enough against a clever team like the Hurricanes.

The Bulls will regret those soft moments in defence when the Hurricanes were able to slice through them like a knife through butter.

The positives for the Bulls were Duncan Matthews, the young wing, who really took his opportunity well, and the way the forwards and inside backs competed on the gain-line against one of the most physical sides in SuperRugby (How we wish for the days when the Bulls were the most physical side in the competition!).

I was fortunate enough to be at the Cheetahs game against the Sunwolves and it’s always nice when the South African teams come to Tokyo – because of our relationships in the past, I get to catch up and spend some time with them. The smattering of survival Japanese I have helps them in the shops and with the very complicated subway system!

I thought the Cheetahs ran a very smart week in terms of preparation. Often when a team is coming off a massive losing run (nine games), the temptation is to go harder at the players in training. But the Cheetahs did not do much in Tokyo and Franco Smith ensured the players were very fresh, and they reaped the reward.

The match was quite tight until just before halftime when the Cheetahs scored a killer try to leave the Sunwolves 14-0 down.

I was impressed by the way the Cheetahs played, they kept their shape and Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen were always a big danger on the wings.

It was a big event in Tokyo, because they only get to host a handful of games every season. It’s a huge thing for Japan to have a SuperRugby team.

We need a global game and we should get teams from the USA and Canada involved as well, it has to happen eventually. Look at the improvement in the Argentina team from having the Jaguares involved in SuperRugby – they have been exposed to a higher level of rugby and it has paid dividends.

The biggest drawback is the travel for the Sunwolves and Jaguares, they do nearly twice as much travel as anyone else. It’s always a great feeling going to a new country when you win, but the worst thing is then losing.

So I hope they change the conferences, but who knows because there has still been no clarity from Sanzaar.



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.


Stormers show they won’t give up Conference title without a fight 0

Posted on November 05, 2014 by Ken

The Stormers are not going to relinquish the South African Conference title without a fight judging by their brilliant 35-22 victory over the previously-unbeaten Brumbies at Newlands in the pick of the weekend’s SuperRugby action.

Although the Stormers are currently lying third in the conference standings, they are just three points behind the first-placed Sharks.

The Sharks have gone to the top of the conference after a thumping 64-7 win over the Rebels in Durban, but not too much should be read into that because the Melburnians were desperately poor and unable to secure much first-phase possession.

The Stormers, in contrast, were up against the competition-leading team who had dismantled the Sharks so impressively the weekend before. But this time the Brumbies were not able to physically dominate the opposition and, with the superb Stormers’ pack matching them in the collisions, the Australians were always chasing the game.

Brumbies coach Jake White perhaps divulged too much during the week when he expressed his confidence that his side could physically dominate the Stormers as well; if nothing else, it fired up the home side and the likes of Andries Bekker, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and De Kock Steenkamp came out in a ferocious mood.

And the Stormers’ backs were no less impressive.

Current Springbok captain Jean de Villiers produced an inspirational performance at inside centre, while Gio Aplon was electrifying on attack. Elton Jantjies may not be the incumbent Springbok flyhalf, but on Saturday night’s showing he might just be the form number 10 in the country as he pulled the strings beautifully for the Stormers’ backline, showing wonderful vision, skill and awareness.

But the premier reason why the Brumbies’ four-match unbeaten run was finally ended was their failure to get forward momentum and Bekker was immense and prominent all over the field in ensuring the Stormers had the front-foot ball. South Africa’s best number 5 lock left many bemoaning the fact he is off to Japan at the end of the competition and will probably not be available for the Springboks.

In Durban, the Rebels made a tasty meal for the Sharks as the home side made up for their anonymous display against the Brumbies with a record 10-try feast.

Such was the dominance and vigour of the Sharks’ tight five that the Rebels were made to look rather foolish, conceding a couple of tightheads, making no impression in the lineouts and comprehensively losing the crucial battle of the gain-line.

Hooker Kyle Cooper, who is rapidly becoming a cult figure at Kings Park, gave another livewire display and scored a memorable try from 20m out, while 20-year-old Pieter-Steph du Toit looks a top-class prospect.

A thoroughly dominant scrum gave a rampaging loose trio a wonderful base to launch from and Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski and Jacques Botes produced a marvellous display of support play and skilful attack.

Coach John Plumtree’s changes obviously sparked a more enthusiastic display from the Sharks and the Kings Park hierarchy will be delighted that members of the younger generation like Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Du Toit, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan are making such progress.

But veterans such as Meyer Bosman, a sly old hand at inside centre, Tendai Mtawarira, the cornerstone of their pack, Franco van der Merwe, the leader of the lineout, their loose trio, and exciting backs Louis Ludik, Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen are also still making vital contributions.

The other South African winners over the weekend were the Cheetahs, who completed their most successful tour ever with their third victory, 19-10 over the Western Force in Perth.

Apart from getting themselves in trouble by exorbitantly trying to run the ball from their own 22 on a couple of occasions, the Cheetahs were impressive, especially in defence.

Their attempt in the 27th minute to run the ball out of their own 22, having held the Force scoreless until then, was particularly expensive as a flustered Raymond Rhule passed the ball into a Force player, the visitors regained possession and quickly spread the ball wide for Winston Stanley to dive over in the corner for their only try.

It gave the Force the lead and they held it until the last 10 minutes when the Cheetahs showed the character and new maturity that had been missing in the last couple of seasons when they went down to numerous narrow defeats.

Riaan Smit, the replacement for the injured Johan Goosen in the number 10 jersey, then kicked a couple of penalties and then made the crunching tackle that dislodged the ball as the Force desperately attacked in the closing minutes. The loose ball was hacked ahead and right wing Willie le Roux, a conspicuous absentee from Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s plans thus far, was on hand to claim the match-winning try.

Another Cheetah who has been given short shrift by Meyer – openside flank Heinrich Brüssow – returned to the starting line-up and had a huge impact, especially at the breakdowns.

Bulls coach Frans Ludeke’s controversial selection backfired as the Bulls slumped to a 23-18 defeat at the hands of the Reds in Brisbane.

The introduction of some fresh faces up front, especially the return of Dewald Potgieter to the loose trio, certainly added some extra intensity to the Bulls’ early efforts, but the backline defence and the poor game plan gave little protection when the Reds’ elusive backs began stepping and weaving.

The Reds’ kickers did not pose any such threat and the Bulls could easily have won this game had they stuck to kicking the home side into the corners and pressurising their lineout.

But a flatfooted, often porous defence did not put any pressure on the Reds’ ball-carriers and, just to add to the growing sense of frustration, referee James Leckie did not officiate with any consistency either.

The one area where Leckie was consistent was in the yellow-carding of Jono Lance and Lionel Mapoe for tip-tackles. According to the details of the law, the decisions were correct because both Lance and Mapoe lifted their opponents’ legs beyond the horizontal. But neither tackle had any malicious intent whatsoever and Mapoe was particularly unfortunate because, in his case, prop James Slipper was actually leaping upwards anyway to evade the tackle.

The current rule on tip-tackles is ridiculous because it is open to exploitation by the ball-carrier and, if the IRB law-makers had any feel for the game, they would amend it. Reinach was the third unfortunate casualty of the nonsense law during the Sharks game.

Just to show how easily the Bulls could have won the game, outside centre JJ Engelbrecht came within inches of scoring a match-winning try after the hooter, but had just stepped on the touchline.

The Southern Kings were the least surprising South African losers of the weekend, going down 55-20 to the seven-time champion Crusaders in Christchurch. The Kings actually scored first with a first-minute penalty by Demetri Catrakilis, but the Crusaders replied with two tries in the opening 15 minutes as the rookies seemed overawed by playing in Christchurch, away from home for the first time.

The in-your-face defence that characterised their previous games was strangely absent and they were soundly dominated in the rucks, again not committing enough players.

Flank Wimpie van der Walt did drive over for a try in the dying moments of the first half, but the Crusaders went into the break 31-13 in front.

The nerves obviously settled a bit in the second half and the Kings gave a better account of themselves, even though there was still some hesitancy in defence. Fullback George Whitehead capped an impressive game as he rounded off a great try in the closing moments, but the Kings now know that being on the road in Australasia is not a cosy experience for greenhorns.

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