Super Rugby Semifinal Preview

Saturday 28th July

Lions vs Waratahs

 

Date: Saturday, July 28
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

I have followed the preparation of the two teams for this weekend’s semifinal with a certain amount of curiosity. There has been lots of talk about favourites and underdogs, changing game plans and strategies, or not changing them, and who the key players and units will be. According to some, the Lions are outright favourites, the bookies are offering odds of 1,1 to 1 on the Lions and 17 to 1 for the Waratahs. Many in the media have suggested that the Lions will win comfortably.

Central to much of this talk of the Lions being favourites has been their 29-0 victory when the two teams met in Sydney earlier this year, the first such whitewash in Waratah history.

Pundits also point to the Lions’ form against the Jaguares just a week ago.

All this may be true, and all the predictions might come true, but it is very necessary to sound a word of warning.

This is knock-out rugby – “finals” rugby. This is a once-off game, and anything can happen.

The Waratahs could easily hit a purple patch; they are very capable of clicking into gear and finding something extra in the tank, and they have some real striking power out wide.

The Lions could produce one of those inexplicable lapses that plagued them all too frequently this season, such as their loss to the Blues when it looked to all that they would take the game out to a record win.

The week after they whitewashed the Waratahs, the Lions somehow lost to the Reds…..

And then there is always the unpredictable “R” factor – the performance of the referee, especially in the light of the current yellow fever epidemic that rages through the ranks of SANZAAR’s referees. The plethora of yellow cards that has destroyed game after game as a contest.

Last week it was a yellow card shown to Waisake Naholo that turned a probable Highlanders victory into a win for the Waratahs, and facilitated their presence in Johannesburg this week!

This week we have Glen Jackson carrying the whistle, and he has certainly not covered himself with glory in 2018. His performances back in late April/early May when he refereed the Sharks vs Stormers game, and then the Bulls hosting the Highlanders the next weekend, elicited the comment that “this was the worst couple of performances by a referee in Super Rugby in many a year.” He was simply grossly incompetent in both encounters, and visibly biased in favour of the Highlanders in the second of those two games. You can go back and read the match reports if you are really bored.

When a spot in a final is at stake, we should not be talking about the possibility of the referee influencing the outcome of the game, one way or the other.

Looking at the two teams:

It’s hard to know what to expect from the Waratahs this Saturday. Visiting teams, Australians especially, have struggled at Ellis Park over the years, and the ‘Tahs have also had to contend with the long haul flight from Sydney to Johannesburg, a 14 hour 15 minute flight if they took the non-stop option, 18 hours if the aircraft stopped over in Perth along the way. Their flight out to South Africa was the day after their quarterfinal against the Highlanders, a really tough battle, with little or no time for the usual recovery swims, massages and the like.

And then there is the altitude, Johannesburg is 1,753 metres (5,751 ft) above sea level, the air is thin, and very dry at this time of the year, very different to the oxygen-rich sea level air of Sydney.

We know that the Waratahs have been a team that steps up a gear in the final 20 minutes of every game they play. They have scored the third most tries, 22 of them, and conceded the second fewest, just 10, in those last 20 minute phases of games, evidence of fitness and focus right through to the end of the game.

However, on the Highveld they will need to pace themselves right through the full 80. Teams that try and start fast and run the Lions off their feet early on have, almost invariably, run out of puff in those last 20 minutes, which is why the Lions also rank in the top three for scoring tries in those critical last 20 minutes!

They face a Lions team that has started to hit its straps for the first time in 2018. They have their contingent of experience senior players back from injury, the on-field leaders without whom they floundered around like fish out of water in the middle of the 2018 season. They have Warren Whiteley’s calm and inspirational captaincy on the field too, something they missed in previous play-off phases.

They have a couple of players hitting form at the right time of the season too. Elton Jantjies produced probably the best twenty minutes of his year in the final quarter of last week’s game against the Jaguares. When he is on form and the game is going his way, he is close to the best attacking flyhalf in the world. As long as he can banish the jitters and yips that surface when pressure starts to worm its way into his mind, he can take the game by the scruff of its neck and control it right through to the end. Last week his kicking game suddenly found pinpoint accuracy, and his passing game was at its best.

Ruan Combrinck is also finding a level of form we have not seen from the wing in more than a year, he is hungry and looking for work. Andries Coetzee, not everyone’s favourite fullback, has also been in better form.

And then we have Malcolm Marx, a menace over the ball, a menace with the ball in hand, and frighteningly hard tackler. He is approaching his best form ever, which makes him an enormously influential player in every game he plays.

The Waratahs too have their form players. Kurtley Beale has been improving with every game, finding some of the sparkle and intuitive play that made him one of the best a year or two back. Israel Folau is injecting himself into the game a lot more in recent weeks after spending a goodly part of 2018 wandering around aimlessly in the back field. He has stepped up a couple of notches and is back to his line-breaking try scoring best. He likes playing in South Africa too, he has scored seven tries in his last five games for the Waratahs in South Africa.

Bernard Foley has also found some of the form that earned him the nickname “Iceman” and is directing the game better than he has for almost two years. He will undoubtedly use his kicking game to test the Lions under the high ball, with Folau chasing.

I do believe that large chunks of this game will be tactical rather than a display of festival running rugby, despite the Lions’ reputation for running all day.

We will be watching with interest.

Team Talk:

The Lions have made one change to their starting XV for the Super Rugby semi-final against the Waratahs.

Despite reports earlier in the week suggesting that flanker Cyle Brink would be fit to face the Australian franchise, he has been replaced in the team by Lourens Erasmus.

Brink suffered a muscle injury against the Jaguares in the quarterfinal, and was replaced at the interval by Marnus Schoeman.

Schoeman remains on the bench, however, with Erasmus, who usually plays in the second-row, chosen ahead of the flanker.

Elsewhere, the hosts are unchanged, although back-rower Hacjivah Dayimani is among the replacements because of Erasmus’ elevation to the first team.

The selection of hooker Tolu Latu in the starting XV is the only change to the Waratahs’ starting line-up for Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final against the Lions in Johannesburg.

Latu will make his first start of the season, replacing Damien Fitzpatrick, who will be on the bench. This selection was prompted by the expectation of a massive physical battle with the Lions’ forwards and Latu is expected to negate the power of Malcolm Marx in the scrums.

Taqele Naiyaravoro is set to play his 50th Super Rugby match this weekend, it may also be his last as he leaves the ’Tahs for Northampton after the Super season.

Discussion:

Perhaps any discussion about this game must start with the forwards.

When the Lions blanked the ‘Tahs in Sydney earlier this year, it was a victory built on the rock-sold performance of their pack of forwards, with their dominance in the scrums a particular factor. The Waratahs achieved a very poor 67% scrum completion rate in that game.

In fact it was a game where the Lions were at their professional, clinical best, and the Waratahs were simply outclassed in almost every aspect of the game.  They were thumped in the scrums, with that very poor 67% scrum completion rate. They missed 30 tackles for a very average 84% tackle success rate. Starved of possession, just 41% of the ball, they kicked it away 13 times. They lost six of their lineouts, 4 due to poor throwing and two that were stolen by the Lions. They carried the ball just 77 times, making 22 handling errors and threw no less than 20 passes that went astray. It was not a good day at the office for the Aussies.

That was back in April. We are now at the end of July, and the Waratahs are a completely different team to the one that got thumped by the Lions. As I mentioned above, this Waratahs team has started to find some form, especially in their three potential match winners, Bernard Foley, Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau. Whilst they miss the influence and mongrel of Michael Hooper, their loose trio of Michael Wells, Will Miller, and Ned Hanigan has been effective, with Miller in particular showing plenty of commitment and mongrel across the field.

Tolu Latu has been brought in at hooker to bolster the scrummaging effort, a deliberate tactic to try and match the Lions powerful front row and scrum. He is a big, powerful man and a good ball carrier close in. Whether he will be as effective as Damien Fitzpatrick in the loose is a question that will be answered on Saturday.

The Lions have been effective at the scrum throughout the year and build their running game off good first phase ball. They boast the best lineout stats in the tournament, with Franco Mostert being the go-to man.

Their driving maul off the lineout has been a particular weapon and very difficult to stop.

Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith have wreaked havoc at the breakdown, with Marx on top form a week ago against the Jaguares.

The Lions’ back division is a willing attacking machine, but has some serious issues on defence, which is perhaps where the Waratahs have their best chance of winning this game. The Lions are third on the stats tables for the most missed tackles with 357 such moments and an 86% tackle success rate. If the ‘Tahs penetrate the Lions backs, scoring opportunities open up like the biblical parting of the Red Sea.

Of course, the Waratahs’ defences have not been all that much better, missing the fourth most tackles in 2018, with 354. Their overall tackle success rate is 88%.

I believe, as do most of the pundits writing and talking about this game, that the two teams are fairly evenly matched on paper, with the Lions having the edge amongst the forwards and the Waratahs slightly ahead in the backs.

This game will certainly revolve around the forward clash.

If the Lions again establish the kind of dominance they had in Sydney a couple of months ago, it will be a long and difficult afternoon for the visitors. If the visitors can achieve set-piece parity, their entire game will be better for it.

One aspect the Lions will need to be very careful of throughout the afternoon is their tactical kicking. Israel Folau is one of the best kick-return runners in the game of rugby and will punish wayward upfield kicks with a vengeance. Andries Coetzee, in particular, will need to find some accuracy with his often mindless upfield punts, while Ross Cronje’s aimless (or is it clueless?) box kicks are cause for massive concern amongst Lions fans. Tactical kicking must, perforce, be aimed at keeping the ball away from Folau and forcing him to turn.

This game is all about the forwards, and winning the collisions, and then making the correct tactical decisions with the ball in hand.

Prediction:

The Lions have the massive advantage of playing at home, at Ellis Park, one of the most daunting stadiums in the world for visitors from sea-level cities. Those skyward soaring steep stands that surround the field, the altitude and, if they pitch up, the vociferous Lions fans make it something of a fortress for the home side.

Couple that to the ‘Tahs having to travel immediately after a difficult quarterfinal and the likelihood of a Lions team that will look for forward domination before launching an assault of running rugby later in the game, and it is difficult to suggest that the visitors will win it.

It will be a tough fight for most of the game, and then the Lions will stretch away.

The Lions by 12.

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