The Lions have played some scintillating rugby this year, demolishing all-comers at their Ellis Park fortress.
In most of their Super Rugby matches during the league phase they dismantled teams with their fast-paced, ball-in-hand approach that left their opponents chasing shadows. While they haven’t played any opposition from New Zealand this year, they have looked like the one team from outside the Land of the Long White Cloud that can actually compete with the Kiwis for the title.
The Lions were expected see off the Sharks in similar fashion in their quarter-final on Saturday, but in the end had to rely on Ruan Combrinck’s late long-range penalty to help them over the line.
The Lions chose to play their worst match of the campaign, making a plethora of mistakes against the physical Sharks, who surrendered meekly their meeting a week earlier.
The Lions were disjointed in their effort against the Sharks’ rush defence and scrum dominance. They made it difficult for the Johannesburg side to get much-needed momentum, which is a massive part of their attacking game.
Because the Lions didn’t get any front-foot ball, they tried to force things a bit to get their attacking game going. This led to mistakes, as well as Kobus van Wyk’s first-half try that came from a quick lineout.
The Lions are a brilliant attacking team, and their brand of rugby has shown that South African teams can play with intelligence, poise and skill. If you compliment those aspects of their game with a good set-piece and gainline domination, then they have the ability to beat any team in the competition.
The Sharks, though, were the first side to really get in their faces and disrupt, and dominate at scrum time. Suddenly the Lions looked clueless and disorganised.
The Lions managed to scrape through in the end, but they know they won’t be able to survive another inept performance in their semifinal against the Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon.
Patience is key in these kinds of playoff matches. The standard of the opposition and the intensity of the match are a lot of higher, and the Lions have to deal with the fact that they won’t be able to run the opposition off their feet like they against the Sunwolves.
Patience, however, doesn’t mean the Lions must now creep into their shell and not look for opportunities to attack in these one-off matches. They must still play the game that they have developed over the last few years and continue to look for opportunities to hurt the opposition with ball-in-hand.
But they must be a lot smarter in approaching things.
It’s sometimes worth it to take it up that extra phase to consolidate, and not try to force an offload when there is less than a 50-50 chance that it will actually go to hand. The margin for error in knockout matches — and against New Zealand opposition — is very small.
The Lions are a very good team, playing some great rugby, but they must learn some patience when it comes to knockout rugby. They must still play with their usual adventure and flair, but have to pick their moments to strike.
The Hurricanes are going to provide stiff competition on Saturday. They will be as physical as the Sharks, but with definitely more tools to hurt the home side on attack.
But the Lions have shown over the last two years that they can take anybody. It’s just a matter of dealing with that pressure and not losing their heads in the heat of battle.