Lively Lions add 'defensive steel'
INTERVIEW: The Lions' evolution from tournament discards to title contenders has taken another step forward with the addition of some defensive steel.
Looking ahead to what captain Warren described as a "massive week" - a Super Rugby semifinal showdown with the defending-champion Highlanders at Ellis Park on Saturday - they said that "staying grounded" and "not getting ahead of themselves" are going to be crucial.
But it is probably the one-line response delivered by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder - after their 25-42 loss to the Lions this past weekend - that was the most significant pointer as to why the Johannesburg-based franchise have become genuine contenders.
Blackadder said that while the Lions have had great attacking skills in the last few years, they have now added some "defensive steel" to their game.
Apart from outscoring the Crusaders by five tries to three - the last of the Crusaders' tries coming on the full-time hooter when the game was well-and-truly over as a contest - the Lions also shut the opposition down with their improved defence.
In their three defeats to New Zealand teams during the league stages of the competition - 15-34 to the Highlanders in Dunedin, 37-34 to the Crusaders and 17-50 to the Hurricanes - the Lions' tackle success rate hovered at about 75 percent.
However, since the loss to the Hurricanes in Round 10, the men from Johannesburg have managed to drag their tournament average up to over 84 percent.
Their defensive effort against the Crusaders this past weekend showed how far they have come, as they managed to win more turnovers than a Crusaders team known for their efficiency in this aspect of the game.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann, who described the win over the Crusaders as "very special" if you consider the quality of the opposition, admitted defence is an area they have worked on
"You can't play in this competition without that [good defence]," the coach said, adding: "The reality is you will be without the ball for 50 percent of the time or even more.
"Credit must go to JP Ferreira, who we have entrusted with that. The players have bought in and everybody have worked hard - just like when Swys [de Bruin] started with his attacking approach, it was a process with the defence.
"However, it won't stop here. We will continue working and there are always errors - the Crusaders scored some tries and there is always something to work on," he said of the 21 missed tackles at Ellis Park.
The other aspect that contributed to their success the past weekend was is the clinical finishing.
"The try that Ruan Combrinck scored [in the 68th minute] started in our own half and that was special," he said of the sublime interplay that involved centres Howard Mnisi and Lionel Mapoe.
"That is what the guys can do if they execute well," Ackermann said, adding that his team used their opportunities better.
"Even the drop-goal by Elton [Jantjies in the 53rd minute] created [scoreboard] pressure."
Captain Warren Whiteley said the Lions will need to reproduce the "massive squad effort" against the Highlanders this week.
He admitted they will take "massive confidence" from the win over the Crusaders into the semifinal, but cautioned that they must stay grounded.
"This was the first time I have beaten the Crusaders since our re-admission into Super Rugby,: Whiteley said, adding: "It is going to be a massive week and we must just keep our feet on the ground.
"That is extremely important. We can't get ahead of ourselves, as we have a massive game and a massive challenge waiting for us [against the Highlanders].
"There's a lot of hard work waiting for us.
"Semifinal rugby is about rocking up on the day and the team that is most focussed and disciplined that will get the result."
The Lions have just one injury concern.
Replacement scrumhalf Ross Cronjé has a bad contusion, after an opponent fell on his leg when he scored a try in the 74th minute.
The bruising will be given time to settle and a call on his availability will be made later in the week.
Loose forward Robert Kruger had surgery last week for an ankle fracture that he sustained against the Jaguares in Week 17.
He will be out of action for at least three months.
* Stats courtesy of SANZAAR and Opta Sport