Butch needs forwards support

GARETH DUNCAN writes Butch James will be pivotal for the Lions against the Crusaders, but he’ll need his heavies to set the momentum up front.

The Lions/Crusaders match on Saturday will see a defining individual clash between Butch James and Dan Carter as the two pivots boast the abilities to win the game for their respective sides. However, in order to play such an influential role, they’ll need their respective pack of forwards to set the platform up front.

This is an area the Lions will need to improve in. They’ve shown moments of brilliance with a cavalier approach, but the absence of several first-choice forwards and regular unforced errors has cost them – especially on attack. While they’re currently on a three-match losing streak, they’ve only scored six tries in the campaign so far (the lowest tally in the competition, shared with the Melbourne Rebels). James said this is something the team is working on.

‘We need to be sharper on attack, and that’s been one of the main focuses at training this week,’ James told keo.co.za. ‘We are hoping to improve on our lineout and scrum performances, which need to be better. The injuries in the squad [the Lions have lost 12 first-choice players] haven’t made it easy for us, but we remain positive and are determined to win this weekend.’

If the Lions do manage to hold their own against the Crusaders pack, this will place a greater emphasis on the flyhalf battle.

All Blacks veteran Carter will make his first Super Rugby start of the season against the Lions. Although he’s not expected to play the full 80 minutes, he’s a major boost for the Christchurch franchise. The Crusaders are touted as major title challengers, but have looked inconsistent in the opening weeks of Super Rugby. They’ve suffered two losses from their four fixtures, and have struggled for regular momentum on attack. Against the Cheetahs last weekend, they relied on a 75th-minute Israel Dagg try to seal a late 28-21 win.

Carter will add some stability to the Crusaders backline, that has yet to live up to its true potential. His organising and playmaking skills will likely improve the team’s general interplay, while his influence with the boot (tactical and at goal) will be a useful weapon.

The Lions will need a plan to nullify Carter’s threat. Cue James.

While first-choice Elton Jantjies has been sidelined for the past three weeks, head coach John Mitchell couldn’t have asked for a better back-up pivot in James – who’ll be the perfect player to mark Carter. The 33-year-old not only matches his New Zealand counterpart for experience, but also has the attacking and defensive game that can give the Lions the platform to record a much-needed win.

‘Dan Carter and [scrumhalf] Andy Ellis will bring a strong kicking game, but we’re prepared for that,’ said James. ‘I want to play a big part at 10 this weekend, by performing a leadership role in the backline and putting in a commanding performance. The guys around me also bring a lot of energy, which motivates me.’

According to current form, it will be James’s physical guard that will make the biggest impact. In his two starts against the Sharks and Stormers this season, he has made 20 tackles, provided a burly presence in the flyhalf channel and forced three turnovers.

Quade Cooper told SA Rugby magazine it’s these kind of defensive strengths that trouble opposition pivots: ‘I’ve played against him a couple of times and players do worry about his physicality. I can remember the look in his eye of always wanting to bash someone. He’s built like a strong centre but has the brains and skills of a flyhalf.’