IN THEIR DE­FENCE, LIONS CAN TRI­UMPH

Ack­er­mann’s men have closed up shop when leak­ing tries, but can they stop ‘Canes?

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN

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.”

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