IN THEIR DEFENCE, LIONS CAN TRIUMPH
Ackermann’s men have closed up shop when leaking tries, but can they stop ‘Canes?
WHAT a challenge awaits the Lions ... and they cannot wait! Much has been made of the fact that the table-topping Lions haven’t played against a New Zealand team this season, but they’ll get their chance on Saturday, in the Super Rugby semifinals, in front of their own fans at Ellis Park.
And for a number of reasons, the match is shaping up to bea thriller. Not only is it a repeat of last year’s final, when the Hurricanes beat the Lions 20-3 in the wet and cold of Wellington, it is also the Canes who were the last team to beat the Lions at home, on April 30, to win 50-17.
Not since that day in Super Rugby have the Lions been beaten at home; that’s a whopping 14 wins on the trot at Ellis Park for Johan Ackermann’s men.
Also, Saturday’s match pits the competition’s best attacking team against the best defensive side. That’s right, for while the Lions are a try-hungry outfit who look to run from all parts of the field and want to score as many tries as they can, they in fact pride themselves on their defence, too.
Ackermann’s men let in just 27 tries in their 15 regular season games before last weekend’s quarter-final win against the Sharks, a significant improvement on the 42 they conceded in round-robin play last season. But then, as some will let you know, they haven’t played the more dangerous and attack-minded New Zealand teams this year, as they did last year. So, what does the Lions’ defence coach JP Ferreira have to say about that?
“I’d be interested to see the defensive stats of the Bulls and Cheetahs during last year’s competition, when they faced the Australian teams, as we did this year. That’ll give a good indication of how well we’ve done or not,” said Ferreira.
For what it’s worth, the Bulls conceded 37 tries last season and the Cheetahs 48, playing against all the Australian teams rather than the New Zealand sides, as the Lions have done in 2017.
Ferreira said the Lions’ improved defence this season came down to plenty of hard work, but he also felt the involvement of many of the players with the Springboks and SA “A” side had played a major role.
“We’ve come a long way together as a team, four, five years now, real quality time. As defence coach, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on one-on-one tackling, but it’s also down to attitude, which is playing for the guy next to you.
“Also, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that we’ve had a lot of players in Test-like situations in the last year and that’s contributed to the improvement in defence, too. What I mean is we’ve played in quarter-finals, semi-final and the final last year, then there were the Bok Tests last season and in June this year, and the SA “A” games. Playing in those pressure situations where one mistake can cost the team seven points has been significant and a big contributing factor.”
Ferreira said the Lions would have to be at their best against the dangerous Hurricanes, a side who won’t fear playing at Ellis Park. “They’ll be confident ... they beat us here last season and in the final, so they’ll believe they know how to beat us. But what greater motivation for us than to play against the defending champions and the only New Zealand team we didn’t manage to beat in 2016?
“The Hurricanes caused us a lot of pain last year ... now we’ve got a chance to fix that.”