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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.

 

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.

John McFarland Column – Stormers’ turn to show they can bounce back 0

Posted on April 25, 2017 by Ken

 

SuperRugby is such a tough competition that every team at some stage will experience a crisis and it’s now the Stormers’ turn to face a test of character as to how they bounce back from their heavy defeat at the hands of the Crusaders in Christchurch.

The Stormers were fortunate to get out of jail a bit in their previous games with things like intercept tries from their own goal-line, but their luck ran out in Christchurch. Things they got away with in the first few weeks were punished by the Crusaders, who have a much more accurate passing game than most teams, and that exposed the Stormers. They struggled to deal with the width of the Crusaders’ game, they were up against a two-four-two set-up and the likes of Codie Taylor and Kieran Read in the tramlines proved too much for them.

The Stormers’ wings were continually being pressured by the poor defensive spacing on the inside; the main Stormers problem was their spacing around the ruck, there were too many players close to the breakdown inside their own 22. They need to get more players out wide, they were much too compressed in defence at the ruck. They were caught cold by the width of the Crusaders attack.

But for a lot of the Stormers players it was their first time in New Zealand and it takes some time to adjust. Plus the Crusaders are obviously on fire at the moment under new coach Scott Robertson and they were just too good for the Stormers.

I spent time with the Stormers in pre-season and coach Robbie Fleck is determined to play a hugely exciting brand of rugby, which has been successful, but now they’ve just hit a blip.

But the Stormers played quite well in the second half, with two of the Crusaders’ tries coming from intercepts, and they will draw some positivity from that. They obviously need to regroup against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday and having the roof closed will suit their game.

It was encouraging the way they came back against the Crusaders and now they are in Queenstown in a very pleasant part of the world where they can walk to training, so hopefully they will be in a better frame of mind come Friday.

It was a weekend of contrasting emotions with the excitement coming from the Southern Kings. For them to come through the way they did, for their forwards to play so well as they came back from 17-0 down after half-an-hour, and to win so convincingly really takes some doing. Plus any away win is super, so it really was a sensational result in Sydney, to win there without any Springboks (Waylon Murray being injured) was truly remarkable.

The Kings forwards certainly outmauled the Waratahs and the visitors took their chances, a charge-down try getting them back into the game. It was certainly a comprehensive win with the Waratahs scoring on the final hooter and one of their tries was also from an intercept.

The win shows that South Africa still has forwards that are well-drilled and marshalled and you have to credit coach Deon Davids. Sometimes on the third game on tour the players are thinking of going home, especially since you have to leave Sydney very early the next morning so you’re packing and getting ready for the game all at the same time!

You could tell how much it meant to the Kings players at the end of the game and it was the sort of win to resurrect some careers. Someone like Lionel Cronje has played at practically every union and although there is respect for his play, he hasn’t really fulfilled the promise of his SA U20 days. But time out of the game forced him to re-evaluate his priorities and he has come back a renewed guy.

The Lions against the Jaguares was a good game with Harold Vorster once again shining, the try he scored, running the same line as he did against the Stormers, got the home side back in the game.

The variety of plays the Lions have from five metres away from the tryline is impressive and it shows they want seven-pointers instead of three – they have front-peels, back-peels, shift-drives and normal drives.

It was also pleasing to see Elton Jantjies kicking a pressure goal. He’s certainly in the running to be the Springboks’ starting flyhalf, especially with both Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie injured at the moment, and it’s good to see him so composed.

Lionel Mapoe is also hitting some form and his dummy-and-go and finish for his try was first-class and he also put away Andries Coetzee for the final try.

So it will please Allister Coetzee to see those two coming back into form.

Two of the Tests against France will be on the Highveld so they will be quick games, with the Springboks also surely trying to up the pace because the matches are at the end of the French season and there will obviously be some tiredness. For that Allister should choose quick, Lions-type players – those Tests should really suit guys like Faf de Klerk, Elton Jantjies, Lionel Mapoe, Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel.

At the end of the day, the Lions are our flagship franchise and that should be reflected in selection.

The SuperRugby quarterfinals will probably be contested by four New Zealand teams, three from South Africa and one from Australia, so the likelihood is that the Lions will play a New Zealand side in the quarterfinal. So it’s important that they keep winning and now that they are overseas, they need to get on a roll. So it was good for them to come through the Jaguares game with a win.

The Hurricanes have still got to tour and the Crusaders are now in South Africa, so let’s hope the Cheetahs and Bulls can do something against them.

 

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.

Cheetahs can surprise everyone with attack variations – Reinach 0

Posted on March 24, 2017 by Ken

 

Everyone knows that the Cheetahs are an attacking side, but Sharks scrumhalf Cobus Reinach says his team are wary of all the little variations to their game coach Franco Smith could have up his sleeve for their SuperRugby clash in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

“Franco Smith has brought in a lot of different attacking lines, they don’t just go from wide to wide anymore. So that’s going to keep us on our feet, the Cheetahs have a lot of good attacking players and it’s a good challenge for us to have. The Cheetahs have a lot of exciting players and they can really bring anything to the party,” Reinach said.

The Sharks surprised – in a bad way – in their match last weekend against the Southern Kings, struggling to a two-point victory in which they made far too many errors and showed little fluency. While insisting that the team had moved forward since that setback, Reinach agreed that the performance was no laughing matter.

“We’ve put that match behind us, but it certainly was not the way we want to perform, it was a below-par display. It’s about attitude and we let ourselves down. We need to get our mental preparation right and make sure we’re up for every game. We train in a squad system so making changes to the team should not influence how we play, we all know the calls and when to do things and what not to do,” Reinach said.

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