Super Rugby 2018
Lions vs Sunwolves
Final Score: Lions 40 – Sunwolves 38
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Stephan Geldenhuys (South Africa)
TMO: Willie Vos (South Africa)
“A week is a long time in politics!” is a cliché much favoured by those who are fascinated by those who feed from the public trough.
I am not particularly interested in politicians as a tribe, no matter what their persuasion or creed. I find them all vaguely distasteful, generally untrustworthy, overly officious, and wont to tell us that they know what is best for us, and how we should live our lives. They all have some delusion of grandeur that allows them to dig their snouts into the public trough, rewarding themselves with huge salaries and eye-watering fringe benefits, whilst prescribing how they believe the electorate should live their lives.
Which, in a very strange way, brings me to a rugby match between the Lions and the Sunwolves.
If a week is a long time in politics, it seems that it is an eternity in the world of rugby.
A week ago, the Stormers were down and out, hammered by injuries and a squad wide flu epidemic. A three-match losing streak tour to Australasia had ended, and the somewhat bedraggled team was on a long-haul flight across time zone after time zone, returning to Cape Town to face a Blues team that had just downed the Mighty Lions.
The Waratahs were heading home, also time zone hopping on yet another long haul flight, after being demolished by a rampant Jaguares team in Buenos Aires, with the prospect of playing the high-flying Rebels back in OZ soon after arriving.
And the Sunwolves were heading up to the Highveld, licking their wounds after being put to the sword by a Sharks outfit that had suddenly found its mojo and started to play a semblance of modern rugby. And they had the daunting prospect of playing the formidable Lions, at Ellis Park, at altitude…….
History has been written and is irrevocable. The Stormers bounced back from their trials and tribulations to completely demolish the visiting Blues. The Waratahs came back from the dead to beat the Rebels by a massive score.
And the Sunwolves?
Well, they predictably lost to the Lions.
But that is about all we can say about a game that was totally unpredictable in every single respect, other than the result.
The Lions somehow survived the best game of rugby produced by the Sunwolves in all of their existence. Quite how close they came to being downed by the bottom-feeders of Super Rugby can only be illustrated by looking at the score board.
40 to 38!
Just two points in it, and the Lions were hanging on for dear life at the end.
Some will say that 6 tries to 5 tells it all, but it does not! It was much closer than that.
A brief look at some of the match stats tells a story.
This was a game where the Sunwolves carried the ball 91 times, and made 767 meters with the ball in hand. That is close to 8,4 meters per carry.
The Lions, renowned for their ball carrying, carried the ball 89 times, but made just 570 meters with the ball in hand. An average of just 6,4 meters with the ball in hand.
The Lions made 14 handling errors and 110 good passes out of 117 thrown. They did not offload the ball once in the entire game.
The visitors made just 9 handling errors, threw 120 good passes out of 134 thrown, and offloaded the ball 10 times.
The Lions took the ball into the ruck 73 times. They were turned over just 3 times. The Sunwolves, in a graphic illustration of their intent to keep the ball alive, only went to ground with the ball 65 times, although they were turned over 7 times.
The most telling statistic of all, the Lions missed 31 tackles, making just 109, for a terrible 81% tackle success rate. Remembering that they were last year’s runners up and perennial top-of-the-log residents, this was a poor show.
The Sunwolves, not known for being great tacklers, and having zero pretensions towards a log-topping residency, also missed 31 tackles as they made 102, for an 80% success rate. Yet, somehow, 21 of the tackles made by the Sunwolves were rated as dominant tackles!
The stats illustrate that the Sunwolves were prepared to take the game to the Lions, keeping the ball in hand, and keeping it alive. The Lions matched them in every respect, which is where things went wrong for the home side.
One did not expect them to match the Sunwolves in almost every aspect of the game, one expected them to dominate, and then to blow the Sunwolves away. And they did not!
Which begs the question: Why not?
I would suggest that the answer lies in two parts.
First and foremost is leadership. On Saturday Franco Mostert led the side onto the field, and one could tell by the grin on his face that he was well pleased with the honour afforded him. He is an uncompromising player, one of the hard men in the game, and often fills the role of being the Lions’ primary enforcer. He is a good rugby player too, and worthy of the Springbok caps he has earned.
Yet, what leadership credentials does Franco Mostert have? Where has he learned the art and skills of captaincy? If this was an attempt by the Lions brains trust to blood him in the captaincy role, I guess we would have to call it a failure?
The Lions’ failure to impose themselves on the Sunwolves, and their failure to pull together, consolidate their lead, and beat the Blues a week earlier has exposed the lack of true leadership in the team. With Warren Whiteley side-lined, and Jaco Kriel on the long term injury list, there does not appear to be another real leader in the squad.
There was no-one that pulled the team into a huddle under the posts and read out the Riot Act to the team after either of the Blues or the Sunwolves scored a try. There was no-one that read the game and the opposition mind-set and adapted the Lions’ game plans to counter the Blues/Sunwolves approach. There was no-one that provided the leadership, the direction, and the technical nous that was so very necessary!
Sadly, the most recent game also exposed a number of supposedly senior players to severe criticism.
Elton Jantjies is the Lions flyhalf, and sometimes plays the same role for the Springboks.
The flyhalf is the tactical general of almost every team in the world. The flyhalf dictates how the game is played, where the game is played, and the flow of the game itself. The flyhalf reads the game and decides the moments.
And Elton Jantjies does none of that. He plays one style of rugby, and just one style of rugby. He flourishes in a fast, open, ball-in-hand front-foot style of play, taking the ball up quickly and exploiting gaps and chinks, and running attacking lines. When this style is appropriate, he is very very good.
When this approach stumbles, there is no Plan B. There is no changing the flow of the game, there is no alternative to his penchant for attack.
His inability to play thoughtful, defensive rugby has been exposed at so many levels that it is almost legendary. He cannot absorb pressure and work through it. He cannot play off the back-foot, and he does not look to slow a game down to give his team a breather with an alternative game plan. His tactical kicking is poor, often directionless and inaccurate. He does not read nor dictate a game.
On Saturday the Lions needed someone that slowed the game down, tightened up the game plan, looked to chip and grubber the ball over and through the onrushing Sunwolves defence lines. There was a screaming need for a general that took control and imposed a clinical low-risk style of rugby on the home side, using their forward dominance and big midfielders to hammer at the Sunwolves until their spirited challenge was subdued.
And Elton Jantjies could not do that.
His leadership ability has been called into question on innumerable occasions, especially during a woeful tenure as the Springbok flyhalf where he gave his back division zero leadership and direction.
A week ago the Lions were exposed to a fight-back by the Blues. On-field leadership had devolved to Jantjies after Whiteley had left the field, and we saw the Lions lose the game.
In that game the Lions needed to tighten up and absorb the Blues fight-back, slow the game down a bit, play to the forward strengths for a while. Yet they did nothing of the sort.
If you go back and read my review of that game you will read:
“In the latter stages of the game, when the Blues were starting to ramp up the pressure and forcing the Lions into making mistakes, a good captain would have taken a firm grip on his team, changed tactics, and enforced the disciplines needed to close out a game.
The Lions needed to slow the game down, play it close and tight, kick for position, minimise errors, and ride out the storm. That is what good teams do.
The Lions did nothing of the sort. They persisted with their wide, loose game. Their usual high-risk, high reward approach when the exact opposite was required. When you play fast and loose, you leave spaces, gaps, holes that counter attackers will exploit. And the Blues did!”
You would be forgiven if you had a déjà vu moment on Saturday against the Sunwolves……….
Elton Jantjies does not possess the ability to take control of a game that requires discipline, technical and tactical thinking and the imposition of an iron will.
Ross Cronje has frequently been called a steady, journeyman scrumhalf. His service is dependable, and his guts and determination are undoubted. But he is no game manager at all. He lacks the instinctive ability to control a game and to look to changing the patterns and flow of a game. He simply persists with the stuff we all know he is going to do.
Much like his flyhalf, he simply does not change the way he plays a game and the way his team approaches the big moments in a game. He is not expected to be the captain, but he should at the very least be a tactical commander, and he is not. Period.
And then there is Andries Coetzee. This was yet another game where the blond, blue eyed, every girl’s dream, shop mannequin displayed zero technical nous. When he could, perhaps should, provide the leadership expected of a senior player, he produced nothing at all. He persisted with his one and only tactic – grab the ball and run aimlessly into contact, and then die with the ball in hand.
He does not pass the ball, that much is known to every rugby player he ever pays against, hence it is easy to defend against him. Just stop him, hold him up or tackle him, and it is all over. His tactical kicking is, and always has been poor.
And then there is his decision making. That truly stupid attempt at a little chip kick in the Sunwolves 22m area, with players waiting outside and inside for the pass, gave the Sunwolves the opportunity to take the play all the way back to the Lions goal line! It was amateurish, it was supremely arrogant, and it was truly stupid. Any thinking rugby player would have held onto possession or passed it to a team mate, and kept the game and the pressure in the Sunwolves red zone.
One cannot even ask “What were you thinking?” – That moment illustrates a total lack of thinking.
Yet the man is the incumbent Springbok 15. He is a senior player in the Lions’ ranks, he should be providing leadership, direction, control……
I said earlier that there were two parts to the answer to the question why the Lions did not blow the Sunwolves away on the field. A lack of leadership is the first part of that answer.
The second part of the answer is to be found in the lack of clinical accuracy and focus. This Lions outfit has built a reputation for being clinically accurate on attack, with the ability to finish scoring opportunities with the same focus.
That clinical accuracy has been missing for much of this season. It seems to be a communications problem as much as it is a lack of focus. There was a moment in the game that perfectly illustrated this problem.
Ross Cronje picked the ball and looked for a long pass to the midfield. Rohan Janse van Rensburg cut in from the blindside wing, he ran in close to Cronje, looking for the pop-pass. He simply bulldozed into the ball as Cronje let the pass go. And knocked it on with his chest without any real chance of catching the ball.
Neither player bothered to communicate their intentions with each other. Janse van Rensburg should have whispered his intentions to Cronje, and Cronje could, and should have been aware of the opportunity.
The Lions of 2017 would have relished such a move, and they would have made it work. The Lions of 2018 do not communicate with each other and the result was a sloppy failure.
There is something wrong in the tribe of Lions, and I am not sure that Swys de Bruin has the player resources to fix it!
Oh, lest I forget, the Sunwolves played well above the standard we have come to expect from them. We will be watching with interest… Are my doubts about the validity of their inclusion in Super Rugby about to be proven wrong? I do not think so.
Tries: Marx 2, Janse van Rensburg, Dyantyi, Orie, Coetzee
Cons: Jantjies 5
Tries: Sakate, Himeno, Saumaki, Millar, Matsushima
Cons: Tupou 3, Nakamura 2
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Len Massyn, 7 Francois Mostert (c), 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Lourens Erasmus, 3 Jacobus Adriaanse, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Sti Sithole, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Marco Jansen van Vuren, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Shaun Reynolds
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Lomano Lemeki, 13 William Tupou, 12 Michael Little, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Harumichi Tatekawa, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Michael Leitch (c), 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Wimpie van der Walt, 4 Kazuki Himeno, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Craig Millar
Replacements: 16 Atsushi Sakate, 17 Shintaro Ishihara, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Willie Britz, 21 Keisuke Uchida, 22 Ryoto Nakamura, 23 Ryuji Noguchi