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Jacques Vermeulen © Gallo Images

Twenty minutes changed the landscape

For most of the weekend it seemed that the Emirates Lions would end it in a dominant position on the South African conference log – and then came 20 minutes that changed both the landscape and the local mood.

Perhaps Lions coach Swys de Bruin knew something at halftime. The way he spoke about his team’s performance against the Blues at Emirates Airlines Park you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was the Blues leading 21-10 and not the Lions. The Lions had endured some soft moments and yet they looked well in control, even more so when they stretched their lead to 18 points after the break.

But maybe that was where it all went wrong for the Lions. Perhaps they felt then that it was going to be a case of “same ol’, same ol’” in terms of it being a repeat of their earlier matches in the competition. What they forgot though was that while they were playing the lowest ranked New Zealand combination, in most estimations anyway, they were still playing against a New Zealand team.

And while the Blues were never really behind the Lions in that first half in terms of work-rate and there are questions that perhaps should start being asked about the intensity of the Lions forwards (maybe they are missing Johan Ackermann as they did drift in and out of previous games but got away with it), in the last half hour they were dominant.

It took a brilliant little bit of magic from none other than Sonny Bill Williams to win an exciting game off the last move, but in reality the statistics do reflect that the Blues were significantly the better side.

Hopefully from a South African viewpoint it was a case of the top team simply having to adjust to the pace and tempo of a New Zealand team. We thought there was good tempo in the match between the Lions and the Vodacom Bulls but that was before we saw the Lions play against a Kiwi team.

It was another step up, and the fact that the Lions are perceived to be so far ahead of the other South African teams, and the Blues lagging in New Zealand, is disturbing. For it effectively means the top South African team was beaten by the worst New Zealand team.

Not that South Africans should lose all sense of perspective over this result. For those who watched the Blues play the Highlanders and the Chiefs before travelling out to South Africa will tell you that this is an improved Blues team. They could easily have won both those games and Tana Umaga’s men look capable of becoming a threat in the competition.

From a South Africa versus New Zealand perspective, the DHL Stormers’ clash with the Blues at Newlands this coming Saturday will be interesting. The Stormers have now played against two New Zealand teams and would have become used to the pace with which Kiwi teams play the game. And while the scorelines of both their games against Crusaders and the Highlanders were fairly one-sided, the reality is that they are not that far away. At least not far enough away for home ground advantage to have the potential to make a difference.

The Stormers’ biggest challenge going forward is reflected in the first half statistics from their game in Dunedin. They were in the Highlanders’ 22 for longer than five minutes. The Highlanders were only in the Stormers’ 22 for less than a minute. The Stormers dominated the territory game and even though under strength because of injuries, their forwards were solid.

Yet the Stormers were down at halftime, and maybe that’s the biggest difference between South African teams and New Zealand sides – the Kiwi sides are dangerous from far out and you can be in as much trouble if you make a mistake in their 22 as you are when you make a mistake near your own line.

The Lions, who have continuity on their side after years of playing together, are the one South African team that look capable of doing what the Kiwis do, but there was a small sense of chickens coming home to roost in their match against the Blues. The pack has dominated South African and Argentinian opposition so far this season, but does the unit retain the hunger and work-rate that they had under Ackermann?

It is a question they need to answer but which can only perhaps be answered when they play against a Kiwi side again. They face the Sunwolves next and though the Japanese team is coached by good New Zealand coaches, on the evidence of their big defeat to the Sharks, they are still too error-ridden to really pose a threat to a team like the Lions.

The end score (50-22) was flattering to the Sharks and the Sunwolves butchered several scoring opportunities and spent an inordinate amount of time in the Sharks’ half without coming away with points.

But Sharks coach Robert du Preez, though admitting that it is still a work in progress and his team is far from where he wants it to be, did get what he asked for. The fringe players mostly took their opportunity to build confidence, with newcomer Wian Vosloo playing his way into the Sharks tour group ahead of the experienced Keegan Daniel.

The Sharks were the only South African team to win at the weekend so they have eaten up some of the daylight that the Lions enjoyed at the top of the conference log. In that sense, the landscape, as it was starting to develop, has changed.

The Bulls have some work to do after a disappointing two weeks since their opening win against the Hurricanes. The way the Lions forwards were able to maul them at Loftus last week was disturbing, and while they scored an excellent long range try in Brisbane against the Reds and are clearly developing a good aptitude for the counter-attack under John Mitchell, they also surrendered way too much momentum to their opponents.

Although the Reds only won 20-14, and the Bulls were leading 14-3 at one point, the Bulls spent much of the game on the back foot and they still have a problem with their scrum.

Weekend results

Highlanders 33 DHL Stormers 15

Rebels 33 Brumbies 10

Hurricanes 29 Crusaders 19

Reds 20 Vodacom Bulls 14

Cell C Sharks 50 Sunwolves 22

Emirates Lions 35 Blues 38

Jaguares 38 Waratahs 28


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