Lions finally roar under Mitch

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day newspaper column, applauds John Mitchell’s impact with the Lions.

There was no victory for the Lions and ultimately it is the win that defines the team but there was hope that finally there is a rugby roar again in Johannesburg.

Lions coach Mitchell praised the tournament’s new format because it has introduced more derbies and by extension more intense contests.

In Auckland when the Blues hosted and beat the seven-time champion Crusaders and in Johannesburg when the Lions came close to upstaging the three-time champion Bulls the occasion prospered because of a long standing rivalry.

All four teams could be measured against history and had a responsibility to what had gone before. In the case of the Bulls it was to preserve the recent dominance and for Mitchell’s Lions it was the challenge to create something new.

The Lions, with a mix and match of coaches not good enough, had become the whipping boys of the tournament and last year broke every record as the worst team in the history of Super Rugby. They lost 13 successive matches, conceded over 500 points and leaked the most tries.

Mitchell, an assistant to Clive Woodward’s England, head coach of the All Blacks and founding coach of the Force, has improved the Lions and he has also reminded the South African rugby authorities that a coach does make a difference and a coach is not what transports players to the ground or embarrasses a nation every weekend at press conferences.

In Johannesburg and Auckland we saw matches true to the hype of Super Rugby, whereas in Wellington the Canes and Highlanders produced a match of such poor quality it is no wonder only 11 000 turned up.

In the first weekend of the tournament so much was revealed. The Bulls and Crusaders will be the teams to beat, the Waratahs will again provide the primary Australian challenge, the Sharks will be a contender, the Chiefs never start well, the Canes have too much inconsistency to win the tournament, the Rebels have taken over the mantle of the Rubble from the Reds and the sleeping giants (the Blues and Lions) may finally be stirring. They aren’t awake just yet, despite the Blues fantastic come from behind win.

Supporters of the Blues and Lions can be heartened by the manner of performance because it counters any argument that this was merely a display of passion against a traditional foe. If that had been the case the home team Blues and Lions would have thrown everything at the respective two dominant forces of Super Rugby in the opening 30 minutes and then run out of puff in the last quarter. In both matches it was the reverse.

The Blues and Lions started nervously against opponents who played with class, precision and respect for the laws, and at halftime seemed out of the game. The Crusaders led 19-6 and the Bulls enjoyed a commanding 24-5 halftime lead. The turnaround in both matches was dramatic and both teams adopted a similar approach, which was to ensure they kept the ball and maintained their discipline at the breakdown. Both the Blues and Lions played with more intelligence and with more patience in the second half and the longer they held onto the ball the greater their confidence. It was thrilling to watch the Blues take complete control, while the intrigue in Johannesburg was the Lions resurgence and also the Bulls resilience in the final five minutes.

Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield were huge in calming the situation as the Bulls frantically defended a four point lead, and when they did get relief through a kickable penalty with three minutes to play the experienced duo did not opt for the three points, but backed their ability to keep the ball for three minutes and wind down the clock. Only the really good sides can do this and the Bulls are a damn good side. They kicked to the corner, took the lineout, won it, mauled it and kept the ball until they forced a penalty again. With Matfield and Du Preez there they will take some beating. When the duo is rested or unavailable they can be beaten.

The Crusaders will also be more imposing when Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams play. McCaw has no equal and Williams will add a dimension to a midfield that lacked thrust in Auckland.

The Sharks, with Willem Alberts at No 8, always had too much quality in their tight five against the Cheetahs who are among the teams in for a struggle.

In a tournament where so much has changed what hasn’t is that there are too many teams who, like the Cheetahs, are going to struggle. It is why the tournament needs the Blues and Lions to wake properly.