Lions leading the way in NZ chase

    2016-07-25 15:59

    Lloyd Burnard - Sport24

    Cape Town - Thank heavens for the Lions. 

    It may have been an embarrassing weekend for South Africa in Super Rugby, but the blow was softened by Johan Ackermann and his side's classy dismantling of the Crusaders in Johannesburg. 

    But, either side of that triumphant South African moment at Ellis Park were two dismal displays that revealed just how far ahead New Zealand rugby is at this stage. 

    The Sharks were pummeled 41-0 in Wellington before the Stormers conceded eight tries to go down 60-21 against the Chiefs in Cape Town. 

    The difference in class in both of those matches was abundantly clear. 

    After the 2015 Rugby World Cup when the Springboks lost to the All Blacks in the semi-finals, South Africans decided that they needed to evolve beyond the forward-driven and kick-heavy game that had been a part of the country's DNA for decades. 

    The time had come to expand and play a brand of rugby that hurts sides through a ball-in-hand approach as opposed to simply relying on power and muscle. 

    It was a philosophy that was internalised by the country's Super Rugby coaches - most noticeably Nollis Marais at the Bulls and Robbie Fleck at the Stormers. 

    With young groups of players at their disposal, Marais and Fleck set about guiding two of the country's most successful franchises into uncharted waters. 

    The Cheetahs, meanwhile, looked to enhance their reputation as one of the more enterprising South African sides on attack (when they get it right), while it is hard to assess exactly what the troubled Kings were trying to do this season. 

    Of all the South African sides, the Sharks were perhaps the most reluctant when it came to a complete overhaul in philosophy. 

    The Durbanites were solid defensively, but they rarely looked part of the 'revolution' on attack. 

    Gary Gold spoke of a desire to be expansive, but not irresponsible.

    The Sharks looked to pick their moments, while the feeling from the Bulls and Stormers was that they would be prepared to take more risks and be more cavalier in their approach. 

    As it turns out, none of the Bulls, Sharks or Stormers got anywhere near the level required to challenge the Kiwi sides. 

    The Sharks may have emerged with two wins against New Zealand opposition, but when it mattered most they were upstaged in a big way. 

    The Lions aside, the gap between the South African and Kiwi sides has never been bigger. 

    And all this at a time when South African sides have decided to emulate the New Zealand style. 

    The burning questions remain: Can South Africa close the gap? Can we coach the skill-set that is required to play the type of rugby that was seen in Cape Town this weekend? How much of this has to be embedded into youngsters at a developmental stage?

    Chiefs coach Dave Rennie's comments after he witnessed his side score 60 points at Newlands provided some insight. 

    "Initially it's a mindset. You've got to want to play positive footy and I think with our boys they love it and are prepared to have a crack from 100 and play what's in front," he said.

    Okay, so you have to want to play. But you can't only play. 

    "We've got a pretty good balance to our game, we still kick a bit, but most of them are attacking-type kicks where we think we can put a bit of pressure on or get the ball back," Rennie continued.

    "We train it. We do a hell of a lot of work on our decision making and our skill-set allows us to play that way. I think all the New Zealand sides are pretty similar in that attitude. We all play slightly different but I think mindset-wise we're all pretty positive."

    Does the mindset come from school level?

    "I would think so. But it's got to be driven and encouraged," said Rennie.

    "If you start abusing your players every time they make a mistake when it was on to attack then they'll stop attacking."

    Perhaps in South Africa the emphasis at junior school level, when development is at a crucial stage, still prioritises size over skill.

    Perhaps that is where the focus needs to be if South African rugby is serious in its endeavour to change.  

    That is not to say that these skill sets cannot be coached to professionals. 

    The Lions have shown that after the past three or four seasons.

    Embedding a new philosophy into a professional team with professional players is possible.

    It takes time, a lot of mistakes, faith in personnel and the right group of players ... but it is possible. 

    That is the shining light in all of this. 

    If the Lions can do it, then so can the others. 

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