Independent Online

Friday, December 8, 2023

View 0 recent articles pushed to you.Like us on FacebookFollow us on TwitterView weather by locationView market indicators

JP Smith wants Lions scrum to a find good connection on 4G pitch against Ulster

JP Smith of the Lions during the European Rugby Challenge Cup 2022/23 match between Lions and Leinster at the Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg

Lions prop JP Smith inists his side are nowhere near their best yet in the United Rugby Championship. Picture: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Published Nov 16, 2023


Perhaps there has been an overly cynical approach from the Fourth Estate regarding this Lions team thus far in their United Rugby Championship campaign.

After three seasons of the promise of building depth and experience, the natural inclination is to demand results from the offset. In the first four games of the season, that has only happened once – a most recent and narrow 24-23 victory over the Scarlets in Llanelli.

Other than the frustratingly poor start in their opener against the Stormers – where they were left chasing the game at 30-7 – the Joburgers have managed to do enough to at least give themselves a chance to claim a victory against Edinburgh, Benetton and Scarlets until the very last moment.

Even in the Stormers defeat, they banded together and rallied to nearly effect one of the great comebacks, only to lose 35-33. Against their last three opponents, all away on tour, they have remained in the game – never giving up or falling away.

Luck starting to turn

They repeated that determination against the Welsh franchise this past weekend, and when the ball finally bounced their way, took the opportunity to secure their first win of the season.

Perhaps, then, there should be a little bit more optimism when looking in at the Lions – there certainly is that sanguineness within the team.

“In the last game, I would say, we were maybe at 50, 60% of our potential,” prop JP Smith said from Belfast this week ahead of Friday’s clash against Ulster. Kick-off is at 9.35pm, SA time.

“If you win ugly, then it still looks good. The guys never gave up. I am very positive about the season ahead.”

That could be considered a fair self-assessment. What is also true is that the Lions are repeat offenders, committing the same mistakes of failed past campaigns to a frustrating degree that can overwhelm any sense of accomplishment.

They still require important work-ons to achieve their quarter-final goal.

Both views can be true at the same time and are not mutually exclusive.

Their final tour game against Ulster could give the clearest indication as to which Lions team will characterise the rest of the season. Will it be the team that self-harms by replaying their shortcomings, or the one that makes mistakes but never capitulates?

The Ulstermen have slipped up twice this season so far, but remain a formidable unit, especially on the 4G pitch at Kingspan Stadium. Indeed, it could be a litmus test of the Lions’ early-season form.

Said Smith: “Ulster away or at home is always a challenge. They have a very good forward pack. They have a lot of depth in their squad.

Eliminate mistakes

“Their maul and the scrum are always a challenge … We’ve got a plan, and for us as individuals, it is just to stick to the plan and make as few mistakes as we can. “It is an adjustment,” he added, when commenting on the artificial turf they will once again be playing on, “but we have scrummed on it a few times.

“On a normal grass pitch, there is a bit of give and it is very important to set yourself in the right place for the hit – otherwise you will be over-extended. We must find the balance to find that space.”

The one area the Lions do not need to worry about too much has been their scrum. Although it did not receive the purchase it deserved from the match officials against the Scarlets, it has been the most impressive facet of their game so far this season.

If the rest of their play could emulate that, then they would receive the praise they probably deserve. Hopefully, that happens sooner rather than later.