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Ken Borland



John McFarland Column – How the Lions turned around their SuperRugby semifinal 0

Posted on August 01, 2017 by Ken

 

 

In the last 45 minutes of their SuperRugby semi-final, the Lions beat the Hurricanes 41-7, which is a phenomenal achievement against the defending champions and a truly top-quality side.

Altitude was certainly a big factor and you could see the Hurricanes fading away, but the way the Lions set up their amazing comeback was highly impressive.

There were things they definitely needed to do better from the first half, starting with their first-phase defence. They were caught out with a simple second-man play from a lineout for the Wes Goosen try, when there were a couple of misreads, and the turnovers in their own half also provided the Hurricanes with position and points.

There was a lot of long kicking at the start of the game and very few contestable kicks, so there wasn’t a lot of counter-attacking either, with both teams playing safety-first rugby, and the Hurricanes generally capitalising on Lions’ mistakes exiting in their own half.

When the Lions carried the ball, they generally went close to the ruck, either in channel one or on the blindside, attacking the pillars. This did not give the Hurricanes defence the chance to rush, and even though the Lions did not get much momentum and made a few mistakes and turnovers, it kept the Hurricanes tight five making tackles, and by the end of the match they were stuffed, the wind had been taken out of their sails.

The turning point in the match came when Jaco Kriel made a steal just before halftime on halfway, when the Hurricanes had first-phase ball from a lineout. He got in over the ball, the Lions won the penalty and they went for position.

The previous time they had won a penalty in a similar position, they went for the tap-and-run which in hindsight was the wrong decision. But it came from the frustration the players on the outside would have been feeling because they weren’t in the game and someone obviously felt the space was there to attack. No player takes a tap just on their own volition, there would have been a call from someone else.

Jaco Kriel is such a warrior, he never gives up and he has a really tough streak, which influences the whole of the team. I felt that important steal totally changed the momentum of the game as it gave the Lions field position which led to the try just before halftime. The Hurricanes forwards just could not fold into position after a couple of lineout drives and in the end Jacques van Rooyen barged over to bring the Lions back into the game.

The Hurricanes had all the possession and territory in the first half, but the second half was all Lions. Their scrum was dominant enough to gain penalties to gain field position in the 22 for lineout mauls.

I felt the Hurricanes yellow card was very harsh. Beauden Barrett definitely rolled away, but the ball squirted out on his side and into his legs. It was definitely a penalty, but with their flyhalf and main general off the field, the Hurricanes fell apart and the game really opened up for the Lions.

They converted their field position into points well and were ruthless in terms of their lineout maul. It takes a fair amount of numbers to stop them setting it up and driving, so that opened up other options for them as well off the lineout.

The big thing though was that the belief was there in the Lions team and you have to also give credit to their whole coaching staff. And Cash [Ivan van Rooyen], their conditioning coach, is their real unsung hero. Against the New Zealand teams, it’s always in the last 20 minutes that they come back so strongly, but the Lions actually dominated the final quarter, which shows they are in tip-top shape.

In terms of defence, it was very difficult to go around the Lions with Andries Coetzee coming into the line very early as the extra man. That does leave them vulnerable at the back, but the Hurricanes weren’t able to get kick-passes or grubbers in behind.

And the Lions scored some really well-worked tries. Especially the one where their centres set things up and their loose forwards finished out wide. Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe have the size in midfield, and then they have the pace of Jaco Kriel and Kwagga Smith out wide to finish.

I thought Franco Mostert was immense and is really starting to look like a world-class lock, and his two consecutive lineout steals in the first half were crucial in keeping the Lions in the game.

The biggest compliment one can pay Malcolm Marx is that he did not lose anything to Dane Coles, who is possibly the best hooker in the world. A long Springbok career lies ahead of Malcolm and we are blessed to have someone of that size starting their international career so early.

In the final, however, the Crusaders will be a totally different kettle of fish to the Hurricanes. They have a number of All Blacks, especially in the tight five, and world-class back-row forwards. They have some of the best players in the world in Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Owen Franks, they are second to none and they all play in key areas.

So there’s going to be a lot more pressure on the Lions at the scrum and lineout. While the Hurricanes stayed down against the Lions lineout, which gave them a lot more latitude, the Crusaders will definitely compete.

I thought the Crusaders were very clinical in their semi-final against the Chiefs, even though they also don’t compete much at the breakdown (apart from Ryan Crotty), they concentrate on having numbers of defenders on their feet. That will mean a lot of free ball for the Lions, which is a big risk at altitude.

The key moment in that semi-final was the Tim Nanai-Williams grubber try and a great call by the TMO to cancel out even though Damian McKenzie was shaping for the conversion. It’s important to get those decisions right in matches like that and it was correct.

It’s great that the final will be a sell-out crowd and a great way for Johan Ackermann to finish his tenure at the Lions.

The Lions have now got a lot of belief and confidence and I think they will emerge as the 2017 SuperRugby champions. It has proven nigh-on impossible for a team to win a SuperRugby final outside their own country, never mind crossing the Indian Ocean. I think it will be done at some time, but hopefully not this weekend.

 

 

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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