JOHANNESBURG – The Lions, and especially defence coach Joey Mongalo, have a big week ahead of them as they look to plug the holes in the team’s defence system as the Super Rugby competition nears its climax.
Up this weekend for head coach Swys de Bruin and his charges are the Brumbies from Australia - a team they’d back themselves to get the better of, but after the three defeats suffered on tour recently, a win is certainly not a given.
The Lions arrived back in Joburg yesterday after picking up just one win - in their first match on tour against the Waratahs - out of four on tour in Australasia in the last month.
They lost their last three fixtures - against the Reds, Hurricanes and Highlanders - yet remain top of the SA Conference with 31 points. The Jaguares (24), Bulls (24) and Sharks (24) though, all of whom have a game in hand on the Lions, are snapping at their heels.
But while the Lions have, like in previous seasons, been a potent attacking force, they have slipped up in the defensive department and will look to correct this area if they’re to give themselves a proper shot at going deep in the competition.
De Bruin’s men rank in the top three places for most of the attacking areas of the game - an indication they have continued their ball-in-hand attacking style under a new coaching team this season, but have also let in plenty of tries - one of the reasons why they now only have a 50 percent win percentage over the course of the competition.
The Lions have scored 58 tries to top the try-scoring table, but they’ve conceded 45 - the third worst defensive effort of all the teams.
It hasn’t helped that they’ve won only 81.8 percent of tackles, to be ranked 14th, with only the Rebels worse off.
So, while De Bruin’s men are first for the number of defenders they’ve beaten (343) and metres they’ve carried the ball (5248m) and third for number of clean breaks (146) and number of ball carries made (1319), their inferior tackle rate has cost them.
In Australasia they kicked off their tour with a stunning 29-0 win against the Waratahs, but then let in four tries against the Reds; four against the Canes, and five against the Highlanders.
Also, earlier in the season, they conceded five tries in a narrow 40-38 win against the lowly Sunwolves, and in defeats against the Jaguares and Blues they let in six and five tries, respectively.
The Lions won’t want to be caught out defensively again by a team they should beat this weekend, the Brumbies, the men from Canberra having managed only three wins from 10 matches and scored 28 tries.
After the Brumbies encounter, the Lions will face the Stormers the week thereafter and before the beginning of the June international Test break.
* Meanwhile, the Lions enjoyed a day off on Monday after arriving back from their tour of Australasia.
While it seems scrumhalf Ross Cronje, who missed the tour because of injury, will come into the selection mix this weekend after playing for the SuperSport Challenge team at the weekend, there is still some doubt around the fitness of No 8 Warren Whiteley.
A recurring knee problem prevented him from touring, too, and while it is understood he has been training on his own over the last month, he may not actually feature for the Lions until after the June break.
Whiteley though remains in the running to captain the Springboks next month when they start the Rassie Erasmus era with Tests against Wales, in Washington, and England, in South Africa. Erasmus is due to name his first Bok squad next Saturday.