Super Rugby Semifinal Review 

Saturday 28th July

Lions 44 vs Waratahs 26


Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 15:05 local (14:05 BST, 13:05 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Marius Jonker

A familiar refrain?

The visitors to Ellis Park start fast, put some tries past the home team, and then the home team starts to come back, relentlessly, step by step, until they are back on even terms. And then the altitude in Johannesburg kicks in as the visitors run out of breath. Game to the local boys. It has happened at Test level, and regularly happens in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup too.

If you are not used to the altitude, a fast start is sure to burn your lungs later in the game.

You simply have to pace yourself when you play on the Highveld. England found that out in June, and so many others have learned that lesson over the years.

So, was it not unexpected when the Waratahs kicked off the semi-final playing at a furious pace, and then running out of puff later in the confrontation? Should they not have known?

Yes, but on so many different levels that do not include the altitude factor.

They have built something of a reputation for fast starts, early leads, and then frittering it away as the game continues.

They did it against the Crusaders, after running up a 29-0 lead in Christchurch and then being shoved back into their own half and overhauled, to lose 31-29.

They did it against the Chiefs in Waikato, owning the first 15 minutes of the game and putting two tries past the home side without answer, but still lost the game 39 – 27.

The week before that Chiefs game they had shown how dangerous they could be, with a 41-12 win over the Highlanders. (A 14-man Highlanders for 64 minutes of the game, it must be said.)

Some might say that the Waratahs also produced some sublime rugby to claw their way back from behind, and then win, the their quarterfinal against the Highlanders last week, a score of 30-23 to ensure their semifinal slot. But that was, again, against a 14-man Highlanders after Naholo’s yellow card. Three tries in the 10 minutes that Naholo was off the field turned a 23-6 deficit into a win.

The sad fact for the ‘Tahs, and Australia as a whole, is that they have a fairly good starting outfit, with a couple of real stars, but their squad depth leaves much to be desired. When the starting XV start to struggle and the reserves are thrown into the fray, there is not much more to offer.

And so it was against an abrasive, relentless Lions side that played with focus, control, and unremitting intensity. It was a display of clinical rugby led from the front by the duo of Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith.

The pressure exerted by the Lions forced the Waratahs onto the back foot time and again, with the ‘Tahs carrying the ball 95 times for 762 meters, but a whole lot of those meters were behind the gain line, often going across the field. The Lions’ line-speed and the chasing of Kwagga Smith and, later, Marnus Schoeman forced the Waratahs backs to play the ball quickly, and resulted in 18 handling errors as the pressure mounted.

It did not help that Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith reigned supreme over the tackle and ball on the ground situations. Between them they contributed to a total 14 turnovers of Waratah ball, with Marx taking two, and also earning two penalties against ‘Tahs holding on to the ball, and Smith turning over two and earning one penalty.

Kwagga Smith produced one of his better displays in the 15-man game. He was a nuisance at every breakdown, helping to either turn the ball over or slow down Waratah possession. He carried the ball 9 times, making a massive 138 meters with the ball in hand, and scoring two tries in the process. (The next best ball carrier was Aphiwe Dyantyi with 94 meters, followed by Naiyaravoro with 90.)

Smith made 7 tackles, of which two were rated as “dominant” and missed just 1.

Malcolm Marx was not far behind in the stats. He carried the ball in open play four times, but made a huge 49 meters when doing so. He also scored two tries. He missed one tackle as he made 4, one of which was rated as dominant. His tackle-assist count was somewhere in the high ‘teens!

The Lions maul has been a formidable weapon all season, and it worked like a machine against the Waratahs, rumbling downfield for meter after meter at times. The ‘Tahs seemed to have no idea how to stop the Lions’ drive, which resulted in penalties or tries with clockwork regularity.

The Lions dominance in the scrums was also evident as they spoilt the Waratah set-piece ball over and over again. No less than 5 of the ‘Tah scrums were in full retreat as the scrambled the ball at the back.

The Waratah defence has been poor all season, and it was again on Saturday as they  sunk to a 78% tackle success rate by missing 33 tackles while making just 110. The Lions gave a somewhat improved defensive performance, although it was still poor in the first 20 minutes, ending with an 83% success rate.

Territory and possession were even at 50% each way for both categories.

This was a competent, complete performance by the Lions, built on a dominant pack of forwards, the presence over the loose and tackle ball of Marx and Smith, and some sparkling moments in the back division.

Aphiwe Dyantyi’s try was perhaps the play of the match as he chipped ahead, avoided the attempts of a big lock forward to push him off balance in the chase, regathered and then left Curtis Rona and Israel Folau floundering as he turned on the pace and rounded them to score in the 26th minute.

Elton Jantjies again produced one of those massively frustrating games. There were moments when he was brilliant – that chip kick to the corner for Courtnall Skosan’s try was as good as you will ever see – and then there were those moments where he seemed unsure, rattled, and unable to take decisions. Whilst he has many supporters, his pendulum swinging from sublime to ridiculous has to count against him when a Springbok team is chosen.

And then there were the really silly Elton moments. That chip kick from his 22,  when the game was all but won, and simple disciplined rugby was all that was needed to shut down the game, gave the Waratahs possession in open play, and Jake Gordon scored to let the ‘Tahs back into the match with a sniff. Fortunately for the Lions, the visitors were not good enough to sustain that pressure and then Courtnall Skosan’s try put the result beyond doubt.

There were moments when the Lions let their concentration slip too,

Tom Robertson’s try to level matters at the break was an almost amateurish lapse in concentration by the Lions. (Not least of the culprits was Malcolm Marx, the only blot on his day.)

It also took the Lions far too long to work out the Waratah game plan. The Waratahs launched every back division attack with a line of decoy runners set up, and a second line of attackers also set. It was an easy read, simply watch the name players! – 99 times out of 100 the ball would go to Kurtley Beale, wherever he was in either of the two lines. He was always looking to feed the ball on to either of his two wings, or his preferred option, his buddy Israel Folau. Decoys are only decoys if you use them at least 30% of the time, otherwise they are simply clutter in the midfield. Once the Lions’ had worked it out, it became easy to shut down Beale and Folau.

The Lions fully deserved this win, and will now travel to New Zealand to face the Crusaders. That is an entirely different kettle of fish.

The scorers:

For Lions:
Tries: Smith 2, Dyantyi, Marx 2, Skosan
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 2

For Waratahs:
Tries: Hanigan, Folau, Robertson, Gordon
Cons: Foley 3
Yellow Card: Fitzpatrick

The Teams:

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Lourens Erasmus, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Howard Mnisi

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Cam Clark


  1. Very good analysis. I offer that Beale and Folau have never impressed me. They are great on attack but under pressure, both dither and fret. They do dumb things and give away tries. Beale is always looking for the intercept rather than the tackle and the tackles that he does make, are 50-50 adventures, breaking the line and leaving his fellow defenders vulnerable.
    The way to rattle Folau is to kick to grass. Either grub kicks or into space where he needs to use skills he does not have. He does display good aerial skills, but that is because he is seldom put under real pressure. Foley is not to be underestimated nor Phipps – both are cunning and have real pace. The scrumhalf is also fearless in the cover tackle and saves tries.
    The way to beat Australia when the Championship starts, is just the same as most games, at forward. As long as a decent referee polices the scrum and breakdown and insists on a fair contest at lineouts, we have the beating of Australia anywhere.
    Discipline may be a key factor. I am not a fan of the yellow card as it is used now. An indiscretion by one player affects the entire squad. I would prefer to see heavy fines imposed for stupidity and leave the contest on the field a fair one.

    • Kurtley Beale is the weakest link in the Waratah defence. He has missed more tackles than anyone else in Super Rugby 2018, with 45 in total.He made just 151. His tackle success rate is down at 78%, which is piss-poor for a midfielder. He is also right near the top for handling errors, 45 of them put him in fourth on the stats table. He might be a handful in broken play, but his weaknesses outweigh his usefulness on attack.

      Folau is deadly with the ball in hand and in space, but those teams that work him out can defuse him completely. Kick to your left, his right, and into the open. Always. He hangs deep left at the back as he needs room to kick with his right foot, his left is powderpuff so he eschews positioning himself in the middle of the field, and always favours a left set up. Kicking to his right forces him to turn and chase, and he is no great shakes at that. He does not like tackling at all – making just 39 all season, and missing 7. In most tackle situations he hangs off, back-peddling, and makes no attempt to get in close and make the tackle. The tactic is straightforward, deprive him of the ball in space, force him to turn and chase the kicked ball, and run straight at him with the ball in hand, he is likely to back-peddle, which gives the ball carrier the option if going around or inside.