- 10 Jul 21
In a game some considered a preposterous waste of time for the Lions, the Cell C Sharks posed a number of questions of a Lions team that's still far too capable of making careless errors. In a tour that continues to offer countless twists and turns, consistency must be the key if the Lions are to thrive.
A waste of time? Perhaps not. Many moaned as it was announced the Cell C Sharks would play the Lions in place of the covid hit Vodacom Bulls following the Lions comfortable 54-7 victory on Wednesday evening.
But it’s the best thing to happen to the Lions so far. Apart from the covid cases in camp, obviously, according to managing director Ben Calvely. If you're scratching your head, well, so am I...
Under the lights, in Pretoria, the Sharks came out with their teeth bared in an energised and aggressive performance. Coach Sean Everitt said he wanted them to be more patient in this game and play more phases and they followed through on that ambition. They also capitalised on numerous Lions mistakes on a night that offered up the best learnings the Lions have taken away from any of the unforeseen events presented to them thus far.
A bit of youth and passion to contend with, and – hey presto! – the Lions struggled for a period.
In fairness, the Lions showed some development since their last game against the Sharks. The scrum was much better.
But that was the height of it. In particular, the maul struggled for large portions of the game. Indeed, the Lions only looked comfortable after Jaden Hendrickse’s ridiculous red card which threw the balance of the game.
Mistakes, Errors and Mishaps.
Mistakes are made to be learned from. Unfortunately the Lions seem to need repetition to learn.
In their opening three games, we had seen simple errors from the Lions Fair enough. New team, new coaches and new systems might account for it, no? But the number of mistakes needs to be reduced, and that ain't happening. Elliot Daly forgot where his hips were and the Sharks were over the line through Volmink. That sort of thing can be excused if it’s one-off but it was similar all over the park for the touring party tonight. Rory Sutherland knocked on from a pick and go. Five minutes later he bobbled a tricky pass from Courtney Lawes, which was never on. Sutherland, it seemed to be widely agreed, had a great game – but knocking-on five out is criminal.
Davies handed the Sharks their third try. He tried a lofty and loose pass, flinging it wide with more exuberance than sense, and Hendrikse bursted away to score. Volmink punished the Lions again, after Biggar threw a poor pass to DVDM and the Sharks were in.
Some might see if differently, but I felt Murray wasn’t totally at fault for Kok’s try in the 53rd minute, as the Lions failed to provide him with cover he needed. But it was still poor. We also saw Davies blocked down in the first half.
I guess rugby players are human too (mad to be fair: look at Duhan Van Der Merwe). But what is unfortunate is that forgiveness is irrelevant when the mistakes are punished. You can play your sexy rugby with your offloading forwards and runaway back three. But drop the ball in front of a hungry Springbok, and he will eat you alive. No seasoning either.
You cab see it as a good learning experience for the Lions: to have these mistakes punished will teach them a valuable lesson and all that.
But the proof of that will be in the pudding.
Improved Forward Play.
We hear it time and time again. If you want to win a rugby match, you have to win the forward battle. The Lions already have a good platform off the back of line-outs but that part of their game remains to be tested. As I said, the scrum was much improved with the combination of Furlong, Sutherland and George. They won a number of scrum penalties and when replaced by Sinckler, Owens and Wyn Jones we didn’t have to hear the ref’s old favourite phrase, “We didn’t have a problem with the scrum before you lot came on!”
But the maul remains an issue.
The Sharks defensive maul marshalled the Lions’ pack into touch in the Durban team’s 22 in the 4th minute. The South Africans then obliterated the Lions’ maul defence five minutes later. The Lions did eventually get a handle on this big boy element of the game and Jamie George managed to score as Lions captain from the back of a maul. Warren Gatland would doubtless like them to gain more meterage from their attacking maul but at least they shored it up well as the game went on.
The Basics Are Key.
How often do we see one simple mistake turn into a calamity of errors? The Lions came out stomping and snorting with Harris’ opening try, after a great aggressive run by DVDM. Then, Daly made his (forgivable) mistake – and the mistakes started to pile up. In the first half, the Lions seemed to struggle to recover from these errors. They continued to try to play the same sparkling brand of attacking rugby when it obviously wasn’t working.
Sir Ian McGeechan and ROG reckoned a return to the basics would get them back on track and I agree. Tucking it under the arm, churning out the phases and establishing some continuity would have served them better than trying to force it.
Murray showed his worth here. Gareth Davies can score tries with his power and pace but he’s erratic at times. (Irish fans will remember he toe-poked the ball back to us at the death in this year’s Six Nations). He doesn’t offer the same assured calm that Murray does. The Welsh 9 kicked the ball away to Cronjé with the clock in the red, when the Lions were in the ascendency and a try was perhaps on the cards. His over-exuberance worked against the Lions more than once.
So when Murray came on, the Lions looked a more settled team. They began to execute the basics with much more poise. To be fair, the Sharks were down to fourteen after Hendrickse’s moment of madness, but the Lions seemed more fluid regardless. Consistency is key and it’s much easier to execute the simple things consistently than it is the more flamboyant – even if it isn’t as entertaining.
Our Irish Lions.
Tadhg Beirne covers the face of the earth and his arms reach out to infinity.
The Kildare man was everywhere tonight, tackling, carrying and competing in any ruck where he sniffed a turnover. As a line-out option, jackal threat and all round great footballer, he shone on the night, as one of the standout performers. He capped off his phenomenal performance with two tries – but more impressive was his energy. Consider his endless arms well-raised for a test spot.
Jack Conan carried well from the restarts and his footwork created gaps in a Sharks defence where there had been none at times. His try in the corner before he departed was a nice cherry on top of a competent and assured performance.
Conor Murray generally showed his class. However a stupid moment from the tour captain in the small hours of the match is inexcusable. Right in front of Jaco Payper and the type of offence he is often on the receiving end of.
Tadhg Furlong is so good it's boring. He squeezes inches out of each contact when he has no right to, and his scrumagging will be a vital weapon for Gatland’s men. We still haven’t seen the Wexford man wiggle his hips yet and show what he’s fully capable of.
Bundee Aki made an appearance late on and flexed his muscles with a massive hit on Thembelani Bholi. The Connacht man is really impressing on this tour.
With next Wednesday’s opponents uncertain, it will be interesting to see how the Lions will cope. They had their scare tonight. Frights of this kind are necessary to sculpt a team capable of winning a test series – or so they say! But it must be acknowledged that these individual errors will be forgivable from here on. Because the Springboks will be unforgiving.
The signs are reasonably encouraging 14 days out from test 1 – but the real business starts here.