Lions need brains to complement brilliance

JON CARDINELLI writes that the Lions’ key decision-makers will need to lift their standards after a disappointing showing in the loss to the Hurricanes.

There are reasons to feel excited about this Lions side. They have some gifted individual runners that have successfully carried their Currie Cup form through to the Super Rugby competition.

Having said that, is individual brilliance enough to inspire optimism regarding the team’s play-off aspirations? It’s a question that should be asked after the recent defeat, as once again the Lions wowed and disappointed in equal measure.

It’s easy to look at the positives and declare them a sign of progress. The Lions played a high-tempo game against the Hurricanes, and were relatively successful in that they made 10 linebreaks. The stat of 18 offloads also shows that there is a willingness to keep the ball alive and deny the opposition defence time to reset.

But too many of those thrilling breaks anti-climaxed in turnovers. The wrong options were taken and in the aftermath coach John Mitchell lamented the missed opportunities.

This is no new affliction for a Lions Super Rugby side that has perennially entertained with their expansive style but never delivered a measure of consistency nor showed a clinical edge that so often means the difference in tight games.

Mitchell will know that. He has acknowledged that this Lions side has attacking strengths, and it’s clear that he means to amplify them. He has, however, sought to bring a measure of balance to their game. They are already a better defensive side than in previous seasons, but they are yet to show real maturity when it comes to switching from attack to percentage play when the situation demands it.

There were large periods in last Saturday’s match where the Lions opted to keep possession and build an attack from within their own half. It was frustrating to watch as they toiled and fought their way up to the halfway line, stringing together multiple phases before a loose pass or breakdown turnover halted their momentum. There were other occasions when the Hurricanes used that turnover ball to good use, launching a counter-attack and often translating that opportunity into points.

The Lions will come up against a desperate Sharks side at Kings Park this weekend, and they will have to show as much accuracy and tactical smarts as aggression and a willingness to attack. Their pack needs to stand up to that of the Sharks, but then the decision-making of halfbacks Michael Bondesio and Elton Jantjies will be crucial to their cause.

The Lions made a lot of ground with ball-in-hand against the Hurricanes, and there may have been some reluctance to kick too much on the New Zealanders’ dangerous back three. They were also helped by the visitors’ poor defence, which leaked as many as 26 tackles.

The Sharks will be more organised in this regard. Their defence and aggression at the tackle point was much improved when they faced the Stormers last week, and while they are also searching for attacking accuracy, they have the potential to turn turnovers into points. They showed that during the latter stages of their first 2012 fixture against the Bulls when Jacques Botes finished off a great try.

There is enough mongrel in the Lions pack and enough firepower in their backs to unsettle the Sharks. But just how that energy is channelled will determine their success. Jantjies especially will be an important figure as far as the fight for territory is concerned. There may be opportunities to strike from deep, but he must also give his side the opportunity to pressure the Sharks from within the hosts’ half.

His tactical kicking will need to be accurate, and his chasers will be equally important. When the Lions do have a chance to strike with ball-in-hand, individuals will need to show better skill and decision-making than they did against the Hurricanes.

On as many as 20 occasions they relinquished possession. They need to improve in this facet if they hope to build some continuity, and then translate that dominance into points. It won’t be easy against a fired-up Sharks side that is yet to win in 2012, but it’s a more measured and controlled course the Lions will need to follow if they hope to make their mark as real Super Rugby contenders.

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