Mitchell denies need for major changes

John Mitchell says a sharper attack is all the Lions require for their game plan to be more effective in Super Rugby this season.

The Lions started their 2012 campaign with an impressive 27-25 win over the Cheetahs, with flyhalf Elton Jantjies starring with the boot as he slotted nine penalties.

However, the Johannesburg franchise was lamented for their inability to close out their next match against a bumbling Hurricanes side. Despite being the more dominant team on the pitch with ball in hand, conceding possession in their own half on several occasions allowed the Kiwis to attack from favourable field positions. A late penalty then gave the Hurricanes a 30-28 win at Ellis Park – a result that would have gone the home side’s way if they had applied a more pragmatic game plan.

Losses to the Sharks (32-20) and Stormers (24-19) followed, with Mitchell’s mongrels still holding the ascendancy in the physical exchanges but with no profitable return. To date, the Lions have only scored six tries (the least in the competition, tied with the Melbourne Rebels) and have one of the worst defensive records in the competition (they have conceded 111 points, an average of 28 points per match).

When asked whether the Lions lacked a more pragmatic approach this season, Mitchell disagreed.

‘For people to say that we only play an expansive game is nonsense. We do play according to the percentages and set certain plans according to the opposition we face,’ Mitchell told keo.co.za. ‘Ultimately, we are playing the game plan that we began to establish in the 2010 Currie Cup. We’ve made heaps of progress over the following year and will continue to play like this.

‘I realise that we haven’t scored many tries, but that’s because we haven’t been clinical on attack. We need to be sharper, and once we have sorted that out, we’ll be more successful.’

Mitchell also pointed to the massive loss of first-choice players for their current troubles. Vice-captain and centre Doppies la Grange (elbow) is the latest injury blow and will be out for three months. The Lions head coach acknowledged that injuries are part of the game and depth is a necessity, but argued that losing 12 key players is an issue all teams will struggle with.

‘If you look at the team that ran out in the Currie Cup play-offs and the team that I have available now, there’s a big difference. We are not miracle workers,’ said Mitchell. ‘I have to work with players who didn’t think they’d be in the Super Rugby squad this soon. They’re making good progress, though, and I’m happy with their performances this far. The reality is, I’m working with a new team.’

He added that the Lions won’t veer away from their original game plan against the Crusaders this weekend, despite the mass changes.

‘We’ll continue to play our game and the players selected have to adapt. The Crusaders are a class outfit and we’ll need to be accurate against them. They can hurt you if they build momentum with ball in hand, so we need to be on top of our game. I wasn’t happy with our performance in the lineouts against the Stormers and we have to improve in that department too.’

By Gareth Duncan