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Ken Borland



John McFarland Column: SuperRugby quarters a good wake-up call for Lions 0

Posted on July 25, 2017 by Ken

 

It was probably a good thing for the Lions that their SuperRugby quarterfinal against the Sharks was so close because it was a good wake-up call for them.

Nevertheless, the Lions extended their record to not having lost to a South African franchise to 17 matches, dating back to their loss to the Bulls on May 2, 2015, in Pretoria, which is a phenomenal record.

It’s always difficult playing against a team back-to-back and sometimes you’re just not that mentally sharp. The Sharks certainly had more desperation about them, especially in the first half, which translated into a 14-3 halftime lead.

The key in the second half was the yellow cards and the one-man advantage they created, and the Lions took advantage of their numerical superiority.

I’m sure the Lions will be far more alert against the Hurricanes in their semi-final this weekend, especially since the defending champions gave them a good touch-up at Ellis Park and in the final last year.

The pressure game of the Hurricanes, especially their rush-defence, is hard to deal with, even though they do concede a lot of line-breaks. But they also force a lot of turnovers and there’s a big risk/reward factor in their play.

It’s going to be really interesting though how long they can keep rushing at altitude; it certainly gets harder after 30 minutes of line-speed at altitude with your tongue hanging out!

The Lions have to score points and make a statement in the first 20 minutes, and when they have enjoyed success in the last two years in the playoff games against New Zealand sides, that’s what they’ve done.

The Lions certainly have the set-pieces to put big pressure on the Hurricanes, it’s going to be a fascinating battle up front. I don’t see the Hurricanes competing at the lineouts because the Lions’ mauling is so good, they’re going to prefer to stay down and compete on the ground, try and kill the drive at source.

It will be very interesting to see how the Lions deal with Elton Jantjies this week after he obviously did not have a great game against the Sharks. For the Lions to be removing a key player from the field after just more than an hour says it all.

But Elton is highly self-critical and he really thinks about the game a lot. It will be a case of going back to basics for him and the Lions coaching staff will be reminding him of how good he is, he is the starting Springbok flyhalf after all and he played every minute of the series against France, which shows how great his season has been. There will be an honest video review and feedback and the player will roll up his sleeves, but he will be supported by everyone in the Lions camp.

I’m sure the other players will be 100% behind him in every aspect, because they know how important he is to the team on attack.

The Lions will not train very much this week because they need to be super-fresh for the semi-final. By now everybody knows the game-plan and it will be all about execution and accuracy. Short, sharp sessions will hopefully bring reward on the weekend with the Lions at their best.

I think the Lions will come through against the Hurricanes, especially since last weekend’s game was just what they needed.

In the other semi-final, I think the Crusaders will beat the Chiefs, they will just be too good for them.

But everyone starts at zero again in the semi-finals, previous results and form don’t matter!

 


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.

 

Sharks surprise nobody but nearly unhinge the Lions 0

Posted on July 22, 2017 by Ken

 

Not many people, least of all the Lions, will have been surprised by the Sharks bringing an intensely physical, in-your-face approach to their SuperRugby quarterfinal at Ellis Park on Saturday, but it so nearly unhinged the home side, the overwhelming favourites.

In the end, the Lions had to be bailed out by a phenomenal penalty kick by wing Ruan Combrinck, who slotted the ball over in the 78th minute from six metres inside his own half and 10 metres from touch, to make the final score 23-21.

Combrinck did not have much opportunity in the match, thanks to the Sharks’ swarming defence swallowing up practically all the space on the field, but he showed that he is a person who thrives on the big moment.

“It’s just Ruan’s character that he’s always looking for opportunities and the big moments, he’s normally the last one to leave kicking practice, even though we don’t know how many kicks he gets over!” captain Jaco Kriel joked after the nailbiting victory.

“I always look to the touchline to see if the coach is giving any advice, and both JP [Ferreira, defence coach] and Cash [Ivan van Rooyen, conditioning coach] were pointing to the line to set up the lineout, but Ruan already had his tee in his hand, even though he told me he cramped when he missed his previous kick!”

More drama was to follow in the final minute as the Lions received the kickoff and then set up a series of slow-mo pick-and-goes and rucks as they counted down time. The incensed Sharks were screaming at referee Marius van der Westhuizen, who was the epitome of indecision throughout, for holding on, but the Lions refused to concede anything, even though Kriel afterwards admitted that “we nearly lost the ball in that last ruck”.

The Lions roared into Sharks territory from the first kickoff, which lock Stephan Lewies dropped, and showed their aggressive, confident intent as they turned down two penalties at goal to rather set up lineout drives.

The Sharks were also having early problems in the scrum and the Lions’ third penalty came from that set-piece, and this time flyhalf Elton Jantjies went for poles.

The easy kick from just inside the 22 hit the post, however, and it set the tone for an awful kicking display by the incumbent Springbok flyhalf.

Lionel Mapoe was chasing the rebound, though, and for the umpteenth time, lock Etienne Oosthuizen cost his team points as he took the outside centre out off the ball, giving Jantjies an even easier shot at goal which he slotted to give the Lions a 3-0 lead.

The Lions are always intent on playing the game their way, but in the face of such an aggressive defence and the Sharks’ strategy of getting players in-between their backs, perhaps they should have played the situation more than their preconceived tactics.

A case in point came straight after they had opened the scoring as they tried to pass the ball around in their own 22 after the restart, with both Sharks prop Thomas du Toit and outside centre Lukhanyo Am getting intercepts. Am cut inside and then fed flank Jean-Luc du Preez, who freed wing Kobus van Wyk to go racing over in the corner for the first try.

The Sharks were playing the knockout rugby, building their play around the intensity of their pack and defence, and using the boot of flyhalf Curwin Bosch to good effect.

Coach Robert du Preez played in the Currie Cup-winning Northern Transvaal sides of superboot Naas Botha, so it was no surprise to see Bosch using the drop-kick, and he succeeded with one in the 17th-minute, centre Andre Esterhuizen’s powerful run at the flyhalf channel providing front-foot ball and plenty of time for him to stretch the lead to 8-3.

Jantjies then missed a penalty from in front of the poles, after another Sharks scrum infringement, and the sense of unease grew at Ellis Park as the flyhalf then lost the ball in his own half and lock Andries Ferreira knocked on, forcing the Lions to play the ball on the ground and allowing Bosch to kick a penalty (11-3).

Just before halftime, the Lions were on the wrong end of a 50/50 ruck call and another Bosch penalty put the Sharks 14-3 in front at the break, and seemingly in command.

But the Lions came out for the second half playing much more direct rugby, and with a greater focus on hanging on to the ball rather than throwing speculative passes.

Immediately, the pressure shifted on to the Sharks and a couple of offsides calls led to Lewies being yellow-carded in the 46th minute, an important development as the Lions scored two tries, both unconverted, while he was off the field.

The great work of the Lions scrum set up the first try as lock Franco Mostert plunged over the line a couple of phases after the set-piece had the Sharks forwards going backwards; and four minutes later, flank Kriel burst through the weak defence of Bosch to score.

The woeful kicking of Jantjies meant the Lions were still one point behind though (13-14), but just after the hour mark they won a penalty on their own 22 for a high tackle – although it was not the most obvious offence.

Centre Harold Vorster took a quick tap and jinked his way through the disorganised defence, making it well into the Sharks half before he freed Mapoe on his outside for the Springbok to speed over for the try. This time Jantjies converted (20-14).

But the Sharks regained the lead four minutes later.

Ferreira was blatantly offsides at a ruck and the Sharks kicked the penalty to touch to set up the drive, which was collapsed by Mostert. But the Sharks, playing with the advantage, went over the line as scrumhalf Cobus Reinach nipped over from a ruck close to the poles.

But the TMO referral showed that the ill-disciplined Oosthuizen had once again cost his team points, this time by shoving Mapoe to create the gap that Reinach went through.

The Sharks had another chance though, because Mostert was yellow-carded for his earlier offence and the visitors chose a five-metre scrum, where this time they had the edge and eighthman Daniel du Preez scored against the post.

The Bosch conversion made it 21-20 and the lead lasted all the way through until the thrilling final couple of minutes, with Combrinck missing a penalty in the 70th minute.

The Sharks nearly scored in the right corner as Van Wyk, under pressure from Courtnall Skosan, just failed to gather the bouncing ball. The Lions had the throw-in, under severe pressure, five metres from their line, and Akker van der Merwe, having replaced the excellent Malcolm Marx at hooker, threw over the top for Kriel, charging forward on a storming run.

Mapoe gave great support and the Lions were out of their territory and able to win the fateful penalty that gave Combrinck his moment of glory.

 

John McFarland Column – A great weekend of SA SuperRugby 1

Posted on April 04, 2017 by Ken

 

The Lions v Sharks SuperRugby match at Ellis Park was a great game of rugby, so full of intensity, big hits and drama.

Maybe it did not have the accuracy you’d expect, but it was certainly exciting.

You have to credit the Sharks’ improvement, but the way the Lions just always stay in the fight shows they have the squad to win SuperRugby. It will be tough though, especially with the news that coach Johan Ackermann is leaving at the end of the campaign to join Gloucester.

The Lions have become an exciting counter-attacking team but they also set such high standards at maul and scrum time, which is why Johan’s departure is going to be such a massive loss. He’ll be missed not just as a head coach and person, but especially as an expert in the lineout and set-piece.

Nobody stays forever at a union though, whether you’re a player or a coach, and you just try and leave a legacy. Ackers has really done that at the Lions, what more can you say about the man?

Normally coaches appointed in England are allowed to take a trusted assistant with them, but in leaving Swys de Bruin behind, Johan has shown he obviously has a strong belief in the Gloucester structures and coaches.

Swys has been a head coach before at Griquas and is a brilliant man, so passionate about rugby, and I’m sure if he’s given the opportunity to succeed Ackers, he will carry that legacy through seamlessly.

But as an assistant coach, you’re focused on your area only and you make suggestions; as head coach you have to make the final decisions. You’re paid to make the right calls and how you recruit, manage people and set up systems in the union is also a big part of the job.

The Sharks were unfortunate to have a couple of TMO decisions go against them and that yellow card just before halftime was crucial. The try that resulted from it brought the Lions back into the game, otherwise the Sharks, if the disallowed try had stood as well, would have had a big enough lead at altitude to hang on, because you will suffer in the last 20 minutes at altitude, as the Sharks did.

Jaco Kriel is in the form of his life, making a nonsense of suggestions that playing in Japan is having a negative influence on his play, while Curwin Bosch was phenomenal, what a performance from the 19-year-old.

His confidence and ability to attempt some of the things he does is really pleasing to see and if you’re good enough then you’re old enough. Mike Tyson was at his best when he was 20 and Curwin sure has stuck his hand up.

If the Springboks want him to play at the 2019 World Cup then they have to get him into their structures now, sooner rather than later. He ticks all the boxes with his nerveless kicking and the range he gets with that right boot of his. And other teams won’t want to kick long on to him because he showed that he can drop-kick from deep as well.

It was a very special display from him and it was also encouraging how physical he was, while he has also proven that he’s a real factor with ball in hand. Curwin is the sort of player who provides game-breaking moments.

I know there has been talk about his defence at flyhalf, but Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett have had the same problems and there’s no way the All Blacks are not going to pick them!

The fact that Curwin can also play fullback is a massive bonus and I hope they get him in the Springbok mix as soon as possible.

The Stormers were magnificent at the weekend, to see the quality of their offloads and their willingness to try things from anywhere was a breath of fresh air. Compared to their mindset before, this was really exciting and you have to give credit to coach Robbie Fleck for giving them the confidence to play that way.

SP Marais is in the form of his life as well, and his ability to take the outside gap and get his nose and hands through the defensive line, putting away guys on his outside, is very pleasing. He didn’t have a contract at the start of the year, so it just shows what a player can achieve with a coach who backs and believes in you.

The Stormers are without three international centres in Damian de Allende, Juan de Jongh and Huw Jones, which would knock any team for six, but they have still scored 29 tries in five matches and have been really good to watch.

The Cheetahs were in many ways the authors of their own demise and their defence was really poor. It has been in vogue for teams to hide certain defenders away from where the ball-carries are going to be, but this tactic bit the Cheetahs badly.

Cheslin Kolbe’s chase back on Henco Venter was brilliant to see, at that stage of the game it’s easy just to give up, but Cheslin really showed the spirit and will of the Stormers to play for each other.

I’m very excited for the Stormers game against the Chiefs this weekend and I expect their forwards to cause a lot more damage.

The Chiefs took a while to hit their straps against the Bulls, who were definitely better and forced them into errors. You have to give credit to the Bulls defence and they were very physical.

But like all New Zealand sides, the Chiefs like to keep the ball in play, they play high-risk, high-reward rugby and look to wear you out. They can keep ball in hand and play from all over the field, and they’re definitely one of the better Kiwi teams.

The Bulls were very good for 50 minutes but they just needed some tries from all that pressure. But it was a better performance and it was just a lineout error and then two grubbers when the winger did not come across on defence that cost them.

It’s going to be exciting to see them in Tokyo this week playing against the Sunwolves.

It’s a measure how global SuperRugby is that the Bulls can go from playing in Auckland last weekend to now playing in Japan. It was just a year ago that SuperRugby went to 18 teams, and now just a year later, it seems it will revert to 15 or 16 teams, nobody knows.

So what has happened in one year to necessitate this change and has anybody taken responsibility for what obviously must have been a mistake?

 

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 winners of a pulsating epic 0

Posted on April 01, 2017 by Ken

 

The Lions were the winners of a pulsating, high-quality SuperRugby derby against the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday night, edging the visitors 34-29 in a gripping encounter that had all the intensity of some of the famous Test matches the Springboks have played at the venue.

The Lions were obviously not at their best, perhaps rattled by the tremendous physical onslaught brought by the Sharks, and they made numerous handling errors. But the sign of a champion side is their ability to win the games when things aren’t going their way, and they did that through a 77th-minute Jaco Kriel try.

The Sharks were superb – none more so than Curwin Bosch, the precocious flyhalf who later shifted to fullback, and produced one of the most incredible kicks seen at the famous stadium when he slotted an angled penalty from 65 metres that put the KwaZulu-Natalians 29-26 ahead in the 71st minute.

The Sharks were undone largely by a string of penalties against them by referee Jaco van Heerden, particularly for high tackles, an offence that saw Etienne Oosthuizen yellow-carded just before halftime. The lock, a perennial liability when it comes to discipline, had earlier caused a try to be disallowed by targeting the neck, and when he was carded, the Lions immediately scored so his indiscretions cost the Sharks at least 12 points.

The visitors will not be happy though with the performance of the TMO Johan Greeff, who was happy to point out every time the Sharks went above the shoulder, but turned the blindest of eyes to clear instances when the Lions committed the same offence.

The Sharks have history with Greeff and coach Robert du Preez made his displeasure over the inconsistencies clear after the game.

That the Sharks were intent on upping the intensity of the contest, especially in terms of physicality, was clear from the start and the Lions conceded a first-minute penalty at the ruck, which Bosch slotted (3-0).

In the eighth minute they fired a real warning shot at the Lions by scoring the opening try. Outside centre Lukhanyo Am managed to make ground through Rohan Janse van Rensburg as the newest Springbok centre was unsuccessful in stripping him of the ball. Kobus van Wyk, coming from the opposite wing, was then barking for the ball as he ran a great line, scrumhalf Cobus Reinach delivering, and prop Coenie Oosthuizen then stormed for the tryline, having just enough in the legs to dot down in Warren Whiteley’s tackle.

Bosch converted and the Sharks were 10-0 up.

But the set-piece lays much of the platform for the Lions’ success and the home side began to exert pressure on the Sharks, especially at the lineout. A scrappy 14th-minute effort saw Lions lock Andries Ferreira pounce on the tap-down, leading to a penalty and Elton Jantjies was able to give last year’s SuperRugby runners-up their first points (3-10).

Bosch, meanwhile, was grouping together 50-60 metre touchfinders and he showed tremendous accuracy to go with length off the tee as well as he nailed a 57m penalty to stretch the lead to 13-3 in the 19th minute.

A 25th-minute penalty then rebounded off the post, with the Sharks regathering possession and scoring in the corner. But Van Heerden and Greeff had a whole bunch of questions about the try and eventually it was disallowed and the Lions given a penalty under their poles for Etienne Oosthuizen’s high tackle in the build-up.

It only further opened up the can of worms when an innocuous high tackle was again penalised and Jantjies kicked a penalty to close the gap to 6-13.

Bosch opened up a 10-point lead again with a superb 34th-minute drop goal as the Sharks were making little headway against a Lions team that had stepped up their intensity, and when Oosthuizen was yellow-carded for the same offence just before halftime it was an enormous moment.

The penalty allowed the Lions to set up an attacking position close to the tryline, hooker Malcolm Marx proving an unstoppable force after the lineout drive.

Jantjies converted and the Lions were just 13-16 down after a first half in which they had been bossed for long periods, setting the scene for an epic second half.

And it took the Lions just four minutes after the break to take the lead, an incisive finish by wing Courtnall Skosan completing their second try after scrumhalf Faf de Klerk had broken away on the short side after an impressive scrum.

Jantjies converted (20-16) and then fullback Andries Coetzee emulated Bosch with an excellent long-range drop goal, which came after Skosan, fielding a missed touchfinder from centre Andre Esterhuizen, had run headlong into the huge abs of Coenie Oosthuizen, but managed to survive and recycle the ball.

Bosch had pretty much been a bystander for the previous 20 minutes, but a move to fullback as Innocent Radebe slotted in at flyhalf and Michael Claassens came on at scrumhalf, saw the Sharks regain the initiative.

The top-class distribution skills of Claassens and Radebe certainly seemed to help them, and a long pass out wide to Van Wyk from Radebe, after he had taken the ball to the line, led to a much-needed try for the Sharks in the 55th minute.

Bosch converted to level the scores at 23-23 and then kicked a penalty.

The Lions’ championship credentials were certainly being refined by fire and they managed to draw level again in the 67th minute through a Jantjies penalty after Van Heerden penalised the Sharks at a scrum although they were dominant.

But Bosch replied with his incredible 65m angled penalty after a Lions infringement, but it would only be enough for the silver medal on the day.

Another high tackle call against the Sharks allowed Jantjies to level the scores again and then, with three minutes remaining, the counter-attacking skills of Coetzee and replacement flank Kwagga Smith were like gold for the Lions.

Bosch could not kick directly into touch because the ball had been carried back into the 22 and Coetzee ran the ball back, before a great run by Smith, and then flanker Kriel came roaring through for the matchwinning try.

Jantjies did not convert, but the Sharks were unable to hang on to the ball in the closing stages of the match in Lions territory, and the home side had survived to post an invaluable victory.

Scorers

Lions – Tries: Malcolm Marx, Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (4). Drop goal: Andries Coetzee.

Sharks – Tries: Coenie Oosthuizen, Kobus van Wyk. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (2). Penalties: Bosch (4). Drop goal: Bosch.

 



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