Super Rugby 2018
Post Match Review : Week One
Lions vs Sharks
Venue: Ellis Park
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant referees: AJ Jacobs, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Marius Jonker
My preview of this game suggested that it would be a typical South African derby. I wrote that it would be “Brutal, confrontational, physical, desperate at times. The collisions up front will be taxing, and there is likely to be some aggro involved.”
And so it was.
This was a true derby, with the game in the balance right to the very end. It was physical, it was demanding, it was confrontational, and it was desperate at times. It was not always great rugby, it is too early in the year for that, but it was hugely competitive.
And it was fascinating!
I watched the game with a number of particular issues in mind.
- I wanted to have a good look at the early season form of the teams and individual players.
- I wanted to watch certain specific players in both teams.
- In particular, I wanted to watch the match-up between Elton Jantjies and Robert du Preez.
- I was interested in the progress of Thomas “The Tank” du Toit in his new tighthead role.
- I wanted to watch Ruan Dreyer, to see if he had improved his scrummaging technique.
- Andries Coetzee was in the spotlight. His penchant for dying with the ball was of particular interest. Had he learned any off-season lessons?
- I wanted to get a feel for some of the newer wings in the game. Sylvian Mahuza, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Sbu Nkosi, and Makazole Mapimpi all seem to offer much to think about, and I wanted to see them up against each other.
- The fitness and form of Kwagga Smith was of particular interest, he might just be the kind of player the Springboks need on one flank!
- The progression of the Sharks game plan under Robert du Preez was of interest. Have they moved on to a more modern style of rugby?
- Whether the Lions would stretch their game plan further out than in the past.
Almost everything I wanted to see in this game was there!
Before I examine each of the above, let me summarise the game for you.
The Lions won a particularly hard fought 26-19 game. They did this with a seriously dominant scrum, an equally seriously wobbly lineout, and some very hard graft by their flankers.
The first scrum of the game was perhaps the defining moment. It all started in the 3rd minute. The Lions kicked long, a clearance kick from close to their own 22. The kick is too long, a serious tactical error, and the ball rolled over the deadball line; the first scrum of the game is called, back where the ball was kicked. Sharks put in.
The Lions monstered the Sharks in that first scrum! Thomas du Toit was simply unable to withstand the pressure from Jacques van Rooyen. Penalty to the Lions.
That one scrum set the scrum tone for most of the afternoon, even the introduction of the Beast in the second half did not make much difference, the Lions dominance was almost absolute. The Sharks managed to hook just 4 of their 10 scrum feeds in the game. The only saving of the Sharks was Ruan Dreyer’s continual collapsing on the Lions’ tighthead side, which slowed scrum put-ins down to a boring snail’s pace.
Which answers the question I asked above. Has Ruan Dreyer fixed his scrumming technique? The answer is a resounding “No!” – He still sets himself with his legs way too far back, sometimes almost the same angled set as a lock forward, and twice with his knees locked! This is simply wrong. You cannot scrum with any power in the front row if your legs are straight. You are already hyper-extended, and the moment the scrum moves, down you go.
On the odd occasion when he set with his legs further forward, the Lions scrum powered over the Sharks.
The dominance of the Lions scrum allowed Dreyer to get away with his poor technique, he has to thank the power of van Rooyen and Marx for distracting referee Jackson from his indiscretions.
Thomas du Toit
The other question that was answered in the scrums is whether Thomas du Toit has a future as a tighthead. Regrettably, the answer is another resounding “No!” – His problems were legion, and they caught the attention of the officials, which allowed Ruan Dreyer to go unnoticed at times.
The Lions lineout was wobbly all afternoon. The withdrawal of Andries Ferreira before the game, with Marvin Orie elevated to the starting slot, might have contributed to their woes. It was particularly the front of the lineout that seemed broken, where Ferreira usually offers so much reliability. However, Malcolm Marx must shoulder most of the blame. He seemed hesitant, delaying most of his throws for long, long seconds, and then being just off the mark time and again. He needs to sort this out quickly.
The slow lineout throws gave the Sharks time to read the lineout set, and to contest and disrupt throw after throw. Ruan Botha was superb in this department. In contrast, the Sharks lineout functioned like a well-oiled machine.
The Sharks started well, playing with great pace and determination, so that they enjoyed the early possession and territorial advantage. This pressure was rewarded with the game’s first try in the 7th minute as Robert du Preez celebrated his conversion from Stormer to Shark.
After the shock of the first score, it was the Lions who showed their maturity and experience, fighting back with that certain calm unflappability that belongs to great teams. They started to build pressure, resulting in Mapoe’s 16th minute try, and then Aphiwe Dyantyi superb debut try in the 22nd minute.
The Lions continued to enjoy dominance for the rest of the first half, but no further score was registered by either side.
The second half started superbly for the Sharks, after an exchange of kicks and a lineout, Robert du Preez found his way through a gap, and the Sharks took the ball to the short side, to give S’bu Nkosi his 41st minute try.
After fading in the second quarter of the game just a bit, the Sharks were playing with fire and purpose again, and they took the game to the Lions. Turnovers, and poor handling, was all the kept them out, until 52nd minute.
Then it was Andries Coetzee who managed to break the Sharks line and head downfield. He made almost 50 meters before he was run down. Somehow he managed to get the ball out, and the Lions retained the ball, played quickly, with Lionel Mapoe finishing with the score.
When the game restarted, in the 54th minute, a knock-on by Coetzee gave the Sharks the ball and a long pass out to Mapimpi gave him his first 2018 Super Rugby try. The Lions defenders had drifted in, ignoring Mapimpi waiting out wide. It was an easy jog over the line.
Four minutes later Kwagga Smith played to his Sevens instincts, tapped a penalty and drove over the Sharks goal line to score. This score would have stretched the game away from the Sharks, but Jantjies failed to convert a sitter. His kicking woes seemed to have returned.
Kicking Woes of The Man With Weird Hair
In the 64th minute, Jantjies is short with a penalty, which could also have taken the game further away from the Sharks. He then missed yet another sitter in the 71st minute. Those 8 points would have made all the difference. Missing goalable kicks kept the Sharks in the game, and they rallied in the last 10 minutes.
Poor handling and resolute Lions defence kept the Sharks from equalising. Kobus van Wyk lost the ball forward in the 74th minute when a score looked to be likely, and then a slow maul and an isolated player in the 77th gave a penalty to the Lions.
Even their last opportunity, in the 81st minute, off a penalty and lineout, resulted in a knock on and the final whistle.
The overall impression of the game was one with plenty of purpose, and physicality, sometimes a bit too much, witness Akker van der Merwe trying to pull Warren Whiteley’s head off with a grip on his head guard.
It was a game where plenty of early season mistakes and inaccuracies were evident. Ross Cronje missing a simple pick-up at a ruck, missing another hooked ball out the back of the scrum; lots of knock ons, passes bouncing around, offloads going astray, tackles made but not completed, slow reactions in the tackle and at the ruck, lineouts that wobbled…
Everything one would expect from a derby game, so very early in the season.
Without a doubt, both sides will improve.
Looking back to those questions I asked at the beginning.
How did Robert du Preez measure up to Elton Jantjies?
Throughout the game I looked at the two flyhalves and their positioning off the set pieces. Law 19.31 says that players not participating in the scrum must be at least 5 meters behind the hindmost foot of their team.
Robert du Preez, at all the Sharks’ midfield scrums he is right on the five-meter mark, and close to the scrum. He looks to take a quick, flat ball from his scrumhalf the moment it emerges from the scrum. On most occasions, he is within 8 meters of the scrumhalf as he touches the ball. Given that the scrumhalf usually makes a step (or two) away from the scrum before passing, and du Preez is quick off the mark, he is thus usually within 5 meters of his scrumhalf when taking that flat, attacking ball.
Elton Jantjies, in contrast, stands much wider than du Preez, somewhere around 10 to 12 meters from Cronje, and often one or two meters behind the 5-meter offside mark. Standing wider allows Jantjies more room to decide what he is going to do with the ball, but it also allows the defenders more room to get across on the cover. Du Preez is more set for a quick attacking run, much the same way as Handre Pollard prefers to take the ball.
Du Preez’s play close in also feeds into the Sharks game plan of playing with forwards in the midfield, while Jantjies is more likely to spread the ball wide.
On defence, both 10’s stand much deeper to facilitate the clearance kick.
The other contrast between the two players was that du Preez was forced to play off the back foot more often than Jantjies, and he did so with aplomb. When Jantjies was on the back foot he sometimes seemed hurried and a little rattled. (We already know this of him.)
Du Preez’s line kicks were longer and more accurate than those of Jantjies, but he was forced to kick more often than Jantjies.
Perhaps the single big distinction between the two is during front-foot play, when the team is going forward. During such segment of play there is no doubt that Jantjies is in charge of the Lions. When the Lions’ forward pods release the ball, it is back to Jantjies running the support line; when the backline decoys are deployed, the ball goes to Jantjies, doubling behind the decoys. More often than not, the ball goes straight to Jantjies rather than via his scrumhalf.
In contrast, du Preez is hampered by the Sharks recycling the ball via the scrumhalf.
I have spoken of Thomas du Toit and Ruan Dreyer already, so I will not repeat it here.
Andries Coetzee had a fairly good second half, let me not detract from his contribution in setting up Mapoe’s second try. He also put through a superb kick for his wings to chase. But, and it is a huge but… He still does not pass the ball! The number of times he starts to run with the ball and then runs into the tackle and dies with the ball in hand is becoming something of a problem.
And I think I have identified the problem! He has a very weak pass to his right-hand side, and his pass to the left, his stronger side, is often a floater! He lacks the basic skill to pass the ball correctly!
Mapoe’s second try came after Coetzee was put into the gap and made some 50 meters with the ball in hand. Just before going to ground he got rid of the ball, going left. It was a floater of a pass that was very nearly intercepted before Sylvian Mahuza managed to control it and bring it back to the breakdown. The try from there hid the fact that Coetzee very nearly threw the ball away.
Think back to that strange double-handed shoulder shove of a pass in the 65th minute. Joel Stransky may have raved about it during commentary, praising the accuracy of the pass, yet it really was a terrible pass. Coetzee shovelled the ball to Cronje, a pass of some 12 or 13 meters, and had to do it with that strange chest high shove. Can he not pass the ball to his right, off his hip, for that kind of distance? It should be a simple, basic pass!
It looked less like a pass than someone trying to stop a big dog from licking your face.
For the rest, Coetzee did not look like the incumbent Springbok flyhalf. He was caught out of position on a number of occasions, especially when the Sharks went right and Nkosi scored his try. Coetzee was caught way on the other side of the field and could not get anywhere near the action in time.
And then there was that knock-on of the restart after Mapoe’s second try in the 52nd minute. After the conversion by Jantjies, the Sharks kicked off, a conventional, deep kick off. Coetzee is the man under the ball. There are no other Lions within 5 meters of him, so he could not have been distracted by anyone else. He knocks the simplest of catches. Scrum to the Sharks, a couple of drives at the line, and a long pass out to Mapimpi standing all alone and unmarked, and the try is scored.
How did he manage to drop that ball? He is a fullback, after all?
Andries Coetzee is not an international class fullback. Period.
The Four Wings
Turning to the four new wings on display. I would choose any of Sylvian Mahuza, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Sbu Nkosi, and Makazole Mapimpi to play for a team I coached! All four have the makings of a good wing. Pace a-plenty, especially Mapimpi, and they are all prepared to do their jobs. They are still untested in some ways, chasing kicks and receiving kicks must still be tested, and cover defence too, but I enjoyed watching them play. I was particularly impressed with Aphiwe Dyantyi, I liked his enterprise with the ball in hand, and he seemed to have some instinctive thinking going for him too.
Kwagga Smith can play Springbok rugby. He was everywhere, an in-your-face harrier, a support line runner, a tackler, a ball carrier, a presence over the ball. And he was the quickest thinker on the field when took the quick tap penalty which caught the Sharks napping, to extend the Lions’ lead to seven.
Sharks Game Plan
As far as the Sharks’ game plan is concerned, I could not see much change to the chug up the middle approach of 2017. They persisted with the strategy of taking the ball up the middle using pods of forwards as the primary ball carriers. They did not spread any forwards out into the wider channels, and consistently used their loose forwards, with Du Preez and Van der Walt in the forefront (after Du Preez left the field Van der Walt shouldered most of the burden) to carry the ball into contact, supported by the tight five. Once the ball goes to ground they do flood the breakdown with as many as four forwards to ensure that they secure the recycled ball.
They do not set up with wide running forwards out in the “tramlines” and they make infrequent use of forwards as decoy runners. It was all a bit “same-old same-old” with little variation. They have the backs to take the ball wider, and they do run with pace and purpose when given the opportunity, but the default option is to go with the forwards. It is readable, and defendable. it is Old School!
The Lions Game Plan
In contrast, the Lions have taken their 2017 game plan one step further. They also play the ball up the middle from time to time, but mostly use just their tight five to do the carrying. Malcolm Marx is sometimes the first recipient, although he mostly has a more roving wider role. Mostert and Orie were prominent carriers, with van Rooyen and Dreyer providing the grunt. Whiteley and Smith frequently spread into the wider channels when the pods of heavy forwards drive, Marx is sometimes out there too.
This is modern thinking rugby.
Think of Kieran Read and Dane Coles… Think of Liam Squire. It is the All Black system. This system gives the Lions more options going wide, and it shows!
The Lions also use the decoy runners more often than not, the forwards are often the first decoys, sometimes there is even a second line of decoys, with the scrumhalf and blindside wing running this line, while the actual attacking line is behind that. Even if the forward pod gets the ball, they do not always make contact, they often swing the ball back to a running receiver, usually Jantjies. Again, think of the decoy system used by the All Blacks (and most New Zealand outfits.)
The Lions are learning, the Sharks seem a bit slow to adapt.
Tries: Smith, Mapoe 2, Dyantyi
Cons: Jantjies 3
Tries: R Du Preez, Nkosi, Mapimpi
Cons: R Du Preez 2