Magical end to season of heartbreak

MARK KEOHANE, in his Business Day Newspaper column, applauds an outstanding victory for John Mitchell’s Lions and writes the Currie Cup final was a fantastic statement from the South African rugby supporter about South African rugby.

Clearly a team of champions fills a stadium, regardless of its geographical positioning. There is something special about Ellis Park when it is filled to capacity and something equally haunting about the stadium when empty seats visually dominate.

There was nothing to spook the Lions in the Currie Cup final and from what I am told they played in the final just like they have for most of the Currie Cup season.

Having been in New Zealand for the last eight weeks watching another tournament the first glimpse I got of the Lions was in the final and the boys deserve every cuddle they’ll be getting until the start of the Super Rugby season.

Then it all starts again, but unlike earlier in the year when there was hope among Lions followers, this time there will be conviction that once again the Lions can realistically be spoken of as a top-six tournament team.

The Lions, not disrupted by national call-ups in 2011, managed to build continuity in selection and performance and 12 of the starting XV played in 13 of the league matches. You can’t simulate that kind of continuity and it was a telling advantage in the final.

The Lions are very well coached. This was already evident during the Super Rugby season, but then they lacked confidence in their own ability and possibly didn’t have the trust in each other. Not so in the final, as they played like a unit aware of their strengths and also mindful of individual weakness.

The Sharks, having rushed back their World Cup Springboks for the semi-final and final, played like a team of individuals. We know the talents of those who represented the Boks at the World Cup, but this was another lesson that a team will always beat a bunch of individuals.

The Sharks’ World Cup Boks tried hard, but they looked out of sorts and emotionally they looked drained. Even the world’s best hooker Bismarck du Plessis played with the emotional fatigue of a man who just wanted the season to end.

The Sharks struggled for cohesion and lacked discipline. The players conceded penalties regularly and it was as if the desire wasn’t quite there to trust the defensive systems. One team looked like they had to be there; the other like they wanted to.

It was a very good result for South African rugby and it was particularly rewarding for those who entrusted Mitchell to find a roar last heard when another former All Blacks coach (Laurie Mains) enjoyed success in Gauteng.

The Lions pack, lacking the individual skill of the Sharks forwards, didn’t want for anything else, and again the desire, the conviction and the control came from the less fancied names in the home team. More of that in the 2012 Super 15 and those names will be spoken of as potential Springboks.

One Lions player who has a Bok jersey is Elton Jantjies. He got it a year ago against the Barbarians at Twickenham, and he looked like a kid asked to do a man’s job. He struggled in a mix and match outfit, played from too deep and kicked poorly.

Jantjies, at Ellis Park on Saturday, played with authority and composure. He never missed a kick and he never mishit a line kick. He defended well and commanded respect with a flyhalf performance as good as any in the history of the Currie Cup final.

Mitchell, a year ago, questioned the wisdom of Jantjies been chosen to tour with the Boks. The Lions coach felt the youngster’s tuition as a professional player was still in its infancy. Mitchell was spot on because it needed six months (and a torrid Super Rugby campaign) to get Jantjies back to being as influential as his teenage sporting pedigree suggested he could be.

Jantjies and fullback Jaco Taute have huge promise as Test players, but more importantly in the context of South African rugby is the potential of the Lions in next year’s Super Rugby competition.

The final again showcased how much natural talent there is in this country and why the expectation on national results should always be for premium return.

The support for rugby in South Africa is unrivalled. New Zealanders may consider their land to be the spiritual home of rugby, but my experience is the Kiwis love the All Blacks more than rugby. In this country we simply love rugby.

To see the Lions roar in 2011 is to demand the Boks to soar in 2012.