JON CARDINELLI reports on the Blues’ 41-32 bonus-point win against the Lions at Ellis Park.
Earlier this week, a few eyebrows were raised when Pat Lam announced his Blues team to tackle the Lions. Questions were asked why Lam had decided to bench several All Blacks stars, although it was clear Lam had taken a number of factors into consideration.
Lam would have anticipated a Lions onslaught in the first half, and he would have expected the Blues to feel the effects of altitude as the game reached half-time. It made sense to keep some of his best players in reserve; to save his All Blacks gamebreakers for the deciding second half.
It couldn’t have panned out better for the Blues. They showcased their counterattacking threat in the opening quarter, and nailed some important kicks. They took their foot off the proverbial pedal in the second quarter and even had Kurtis Haiu sent to the sin bin, but only trailed 25-17 at the break.
What followed was a period of play that saw the Blues outscore the Lions 24-7. The Blues bench made a huge impact, with Keven Mealamu adding more grunt and Daniel Braid making some crucial breakdown steals. Rene Ranger also contributed two tries to the visitors’ cause, and made a great cover tackle to deny the Lions a losing bonus point at the death.
It was a free-running extravaganza from start to finish, but it was also a game of pressure. The Lions made a number of tactical errors, kicking on dangerous counterattacking exponents like Joe Rokocoko, who sparked the Blues’ first two tries. The hosts scored some great tries over the course of the game, but the final analysis will show that they left at least three five-pointers on the field.
Elton Jantjies kicked five goals from six attempts, and had a hand in several tries, but was again very inconsistent. It’s hard to praise him for what he did right when his mistakes cost the Lions at crucial periods.
He was rounded all too easily by opposite number Luke McAlister, a crucial defensive error that allowed the Blues to regain the lead in the 56th minute. Jantjies then dropped a simple pass right on his own tryline to hand the Blues a scrum, and from there the visitors scored the try that would seal the result.
That’s not to say the Lions didn’t play some exciting rugby. Their loose trio was full of running, Derick Minnie and Warren Whiteley getting around the park and featuring with some sharp offloading. Josh Strauss was a menace on the ground, and fullback Jaco Taute was a constant attacking threat from the back.
But it was a high-risk attacking approach that often led to turnovers. The Lions still don’t have the precision to match their pace, and they continue to blow try-scoring opportunities. It seems the pattern of play is too fast for their chief decision-makers, who often battle to find support runners once they have broken the line.
For all of their improvement, they are still without a win in the 2011 competition and have now lost 17 games on the trot. Their fans will point to the four tries scored, but they are losing close encounters because they don’t have the players that thrive under pressure.
While his goal-kicking was much improved, Janjties was shown up in the composure department. John Mitchell has backed him publicly, but if the youngster continues to cost the team games, it won’t be long before Mitchell turns to a more experienced if less exciting option.