Dapper Lions now test Gold, Fleck

    2016-04-02 12:31

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Lions are gathering Super Rugby friends at a rate of knots, if not quite yet able to boast winning important matches against quality foes consistently.

    That they are on an upward curve for a progressive, crowd-pleasing brand of rugby, albeit still laced with damaging fits of naivety, is undeniable … and yes, that is even despite Friday’s home setback in an 80-point thrill-ride against the legendary Crusaders.

    The record seven-time champions, seemingly nudging their way back after a lean period toward exemplary past standards themselves, won 43-37 at Emirates Airline Park but this was one of those agreeable occasions where even a good number of diehard Lions supporters would have been able to go home with smiles eclipsing frowns, given the hardly unimportant value for money they received for their night out.

    Johan Ackermann’s never-surrender charges contributed royally to a champagne game of rugby which combined bruising, always compelling forward exchanges with the truest, traditional spirit of rugby union in backline constructiveness and hand-to-hand cut and thrust.

    It was a great advertisement for rugby in the southern hemisphere, demonstrating anew why the balance of global power at both international and arguably also franchise/club level so frequently stays on this particular side of the equator.

    Much higher-touted South African teams than the current, reasonably youthful Lions have come an altogether more serious, depressing cropper to the Crusaders, either home or away - it is certainly my fervent hope that Ackermann and his closest lieutenants won’t allow the result to somehow coax them back toward a more cautious, overly collision-based style of play still favoured by certain other domestic outfits.

    Under his tutelage, the Lions continue to look the closest thing in style and courageous application of game-plan to matching the multi-decorated, easily planet-leading New Zealand approach to rugby.

    That the ‘Saders deserved their victory could hardly be disputed, and the home team’s typically gracious and astute captain Warren Whiteley acknowledged as much in the immediate post-match TV interview.

    The rangy No 8, who had a difficult but still valiant match in direct opposition to the best exponent of the berth there is, Kieran Read, also deftly pinpointed the Lions’ primarily failings in this outing: being generally outfoxed in the turnovers department, sometimes losing their defensive concentration and resolve with very costly consequences, and occasionally playing a tad too much fancy stuff from too dangerously deep in their own real estate.

    But when you are trying so determinedly to reinvent yourselves – something that may well prove eventually in broader national interest – you have to expect certain teething pains, and try hat-trick hero and man-of-the-match Ryan Crotty, the Crusaders centre, almost certainly wasn’t simply muttering polite platitudes when he lauded the Lions for playing “some of the best footie” competition-wide this year.

    With some vital tweaking and perfecting, the Lions’ method still contains so many inviting possibilities for marked success, and it will be fascinating now to see whether they stick wholeheartedly to their guns in immediate, challenging follow-up respective derbies against the Sharks (Durban next Saturday) and then Stormers (Johannesburg).

    Both of those often SA pace-setting sides are on byes in the present round.

    The stakes will be particularly high when Whiteley and company encounter the Sharks in a top-of-table Africa Conference 2 affair - the difference is a mere two points on the log after five matches each - so there is no guarantee at all of an end-to-end, free-spirited classic.

    Yet the jury remains out over whether either of the Sharks’ and Stormers’ respective masterminds, Gary Gold and Robbie Fleck, are genuinely dragging their own charges - whether kicking and screaming or not - into a brave new world tactically-speaking.

    There is likely to be no shortage of neutrals rather urging that the Lions, whatever the outcomes of either derby, continue to manufacture elegant tries along the way, and thus effectively lay down the gauntlet to both rival coaches: “Right, now show what YOU have in the attack department ...”

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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