Lions kickers crucial for final victory
Johannesburg - As tension for the Vodacom Super Rugby final heightens, the Emirates Lions will know that in what is expected to be wet and slippery conditions one part of their game that hasn’t received much attention - the kicking game.
According to the SuperSport website, and in a stadium known for swirling winds and every changing direction of the gusty blows, the kicking game – not just at posts – will be a crucial part of the final against a motivated and highly-rated Hurricanes team who will be looking to overturn their loss at the same stage last year.
The Lions will find the going very different from their base at Emirates Airline Park where the ball travels a mile and is consistent. In contrast Westpac stadium is known for the changes in wind direction, a swirling breeze and a tough wind to play into if you’re on the wrong side of the breeze.
Coach Johan Ackermann has even gone the extra mile to ask for extra time on the park to acclimatise his kickers to the stadium – especially as they didn’t play in Wellington this year.
“At this stage we are happy, it makes it different in terms of the distance the ball travels and the way the ball is travelling at the venue we practised at. It was an open venue and you could feel how the wind influenced that if you played with or against the wind,” Ackermann said.
“It will probably be the biggest factor. We did organise – and we don’t do it normally – we asked if we can send the kickers to the stadium for two days and not just traditionally at captain’s practice. JP Ferreira, who looks after the kickers, he went with them and was satisfied when he returned to the team hotel.
“He said the guys kicked well and they have another opportunity as well and during the warm-up to get used to the conditions. Elton was quite comfortable to posts etc. Obviously it is more on the day where you need to execute your kicks that will be the challenge.
“It will be either or – you either will play with the wind or against and it is swirling in the stadium at all times. It will be on the day where you have to perform.”
The Lions do have a secret weapon in Ruan Combrinck and the utility back can slot the ball over from 60 metres, but while this would normally be a massive asset in the final, Ackermann believes the players need to take the right decisions on the field before they decide to take long-range kicks. If anything the coach would rather score tries than rely on the final coming down to a kicking game.
“If the conditions allow it, we can unleash Ruan, and he can go for it. But our mindset must still be positive and to score tries and play to our strengths and the guys must enjoy it,” Ackermann said.
“It is an option and we can go for those three points if needed. Once we arrive at the stadium and the players get the feeling of what the pressure is, we will make that call. The guys will get the feeling in the warm-up at what the range is as well.”
Defence and kicking coach JP Ferreirs gave a bit more insight into the challenges facing the kickers at the iconic stadium on the Wellington Harbour – and believes it will come down to making the right decision in the wind on the field – a decision that could change in seconds if the wind changes direction.
“We kicked this morning at 10am and we will have an afternoon kicking session as well. One thing that we felt was that you have to stick to what you know and stick to your line, but you also have to – on the moment – decide if you feel the wind against you or feel the wind with you. That is what the stadium does, there will be times when you have to take your time and make a decision – and make the right decision,” Ferreira added.
“There were times that Elton was kicking comfortably from the halfway line and then there were times where he just missed it. The same with Ruan Combrinck, there were times he was out at the 60 metre mark, and he didn’t even reach the posts – and I’m talking about a minute’s difference.
“You just have to take your time and make sure you make the right decision – even if you are kicking to touch. It is obviously not the same conditions as we have at home where we can go to the corner. We need to find touch and make sure we take the right decisions.”
The Lions shade the Hurricanes in terms of statistics on kicking in the competition but have missed more than a few in the previous games against New Zealand opposition. Luckily for them the tries they scored made a huge difference.
But the way they handle the conditions in a final, against the top New Zealand team in the competition, could make all the difference on Saturday.
Read the story on SuperSport