Lions place another brick in their wall
JOHANNESBURG - Yeah, tries are cool, but have you ever felt the joy of seeing a team keep their opponents try-less for a full 80 minutes?
Because that is what the Golden Lions did against the Sharks in their 27-12 Currie Cup win at Ellis Park on Saturday, and it was impressive to say the least. The Joburgers themselves dotted down behind the whitewash twice during the encounter - the first an arm-wrestle on the tryline that resulted in Courtnall Skosan skimming the touchline to dive over for a five-pointer and the second the result of some brilliance from the irrepressible Wandisile Simelane, who off-loaded to Tiaan Schoeman to seal the victory.
They were well-worked tries, but they paled in comparison to the defensive efforts of the Lions. It was simply sublime - an impenetrable wall that drove the Sharks back, denied them the gain line, stifled any attack that the Durban-based team attempted and soaked up concerted pressure from their opponents. At the beginning of the season, it was their weakness, it is now a strength - they have conceded the least amount of tries this disjointed season.
"Defensive, ja, proud of the guys," said coach Ivan van Rooyen. "They worked hard, I think the system was good (on Saturday) and individually they put their hands up.
"It helps that you have one or two big hitters, like Willem (Alberts). I think we are getting better every week, and I am proud of that."
As pointed out by Van Rooyen, Alberts put in a massive shift in defence, which handed him the man-of-the-match award. But he was not the only Lions player to do so. Fellow veteran Jaco Kriel and No 8 Len Massyn also did their part, making 10 tackles, while hooker Jaco Visagie completed the most tackles in the game with 13. Wilhelm van der Sluys, in for the injured Vincent Thsituka and whose selection at flank is part of a bigger plan that involves the ProRugby League - as revealed by Van Rooyen - had an excellent game on both attack and defence.
In general the old hands guided their younger counterparts, a much improved aspect of their game that had Van Rooyen beaming.
"I think what I respect about guys like Willen and Jannie (du Plessis) and Jaco currently is that they just don't want to talk a big game, and want to talk in the team room to do things. Their actions are really speaking louder than words at this stage. They are willing to put their hands up, they are willing to get their hands dirty and that is a positive," he said.
The Lions bullied the Sharks in most aspects of play - they dominated at scrumtime, swarmed breakdowns, and disrupted the line-outs just enough so as to be off-putting. They may have skirted the line of legality at times - here's looking at you Marvin Orie - but their bellicosity in their defensive play only put more pressure on a shrinking effort from their opposition.
As the cliche goes, defence win matches - and championships for that matter - and the Lions now occupy a space of confidence within their system that could see them into the semi-finals and beyond. Remaining faithful to that structure will be key this weekend against the Blue Bulls, who will ask more questions than the Sharks in attack. The Lions are the only unbeaten team in the Currie Cup, with four wins on the trot, and are arguably the team to beat at the moment. That will leave them buoyant as they build towards another tough match this Saturday.
Beating the Bulls in Pretoria will also go a long way to securing a semi-final spot, with two games remaining. Will it be enough for a home semi? That remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it can be achieved with the Lions’ defence and their ability to take their chances when they come.