The Lions and the Cheetahs have always had an interesting rivalry. In a way they’re like a big brother and a little brother; their relationship never really boiling over into the kind of white-hot enmity that exists between the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls. In the early days of Super Rugby the Free Staters might have felt they had lost their identity after being absorbed into Laurie Mains’ Joburg-based Cats, but as the Lions’ crown started to slip they were regularly beaten by a Bloemfontein dynasty eager to plant its own flag. And, more than just liberating themselves from the Lions’ shadow, the Cheetahs liberated the rugby ball, using the full width of the field to become everybody’s “Favourite Second Team”.
Until their big brothers stole that identity too.
Last week’s catfight at Ellis Park was as much a lesson as it was a changing of the guard. The Lions have arguably become not just South Africa’s premier rugby team but also South Africa’s most exciting rugby team – a hitherto unimaginable concept that is extraordinarily exciting in itself. The Cheetahs, for so long the standard bearers of South Africa’s attacking game, find themselves out-evolved and outshone by the men from Gauteng. Saturday’s match showed that Franco Smith’s young charges still have a long way to go, but what was more revealing was to see just how far the Lions have come.
THE INSIDE MAN
Let’s start by looking at how the Lions unpicked the Cheetahs’ defence. The Lions are one of the competition’s most effective attacking outfits, but Rugby Analytics tells us that in this game their secret sauce was specifically linebreaks. That might sound obvious, but it’s the number of linebreaks, where they happened, and why they happened that is interesting. Rugby Analytics shows that the Lions had a total of 9 linebreaks in the match – a fair amount – but what’s significant is that 6 of them occurred because the Lions passed back inside. In other words they specifically targeted the lagging Cheetahs “catch-up” defender. As the ball moves down the line the inside man relaxes and doesn’t keep up, creating space that’s ripe for the plucking.
There’s no doubt that exploiting this weakness was a pre-planned objective, and it speaks volumes about how proficient and clinical Johan Ackerman’s men have become that they’re working this kind of focal-point probing into their already high-speed and diversiform attack.
Rugby Analytics reports that 4 of these 9 “back inside” passes occurred in the 9-10 channel, so the Cheetahs were as lax close-in as they were further down the line. This tells us that it wasn’t necessarily a failure of specific personnel but rather a case of overall looseness in their defence. They tended to drift, and the catch-up man didn’t always work hard enough to stay tight. It’s a classic case of missed connections in a raw group and it’s clear the Lions set out to punish the young Cheetahs here, with 4 tries coming from inside passes. What the Free Staters don’t have yet is cohesion; that dimension of defence that exists beyond just tactics, training and attitude.
If we’re going to talk about the Lions defence, let’s first weigh the Cheetahs attack. What kind of challenge did they present? The Cheetahs are considered one of the run-at-all-costs, take-it-wide teams of Super Rugby, but that’s not necessarily always true. They do take risks – for instance when and where they decide to offload – but they often play narrower than people think. They went wide on valuable 1st phase ball only 10% of the time and totalled a mere 13% wide plays across all phases. While the Lions’ aggressive rush defence undoubtedly contributed to the Cheetahs’ lack of width, they did take a surprisingly circumspect approach that was easier to defend.
But even though the Cheetahs didn’t set a stern examination it’s time to realise that the Lions are becoming very, very good at keeping their opponents in check. Something is brewing on defence… All the talk is of the Lions’ high-speed attack, but Rugby Analytics notes that they’re missing only 13.8 tackles per game. Against the Cheetahs they had a tackle completion rate just shy of 88%. Put simply, the Lions don’t often miss their man or concede linebreaks. They’re adding genuinely astute defence to their already impressive armory and this will be a storyline worth watching as the season develops.
MEN IN THE LINE
A lot of it has to do with the way the Lions rush and press. When you have the ball they race up and shut you down, but then they’ll rarely contest the ruck. They don’t fight you at the tackle point unless there’s a clear chance they’ll get a turnover – and that gives them more numbers in the line. Rugby Analytics reveals that the Lions have been penalised only 3 times for ruck-related offenses like “Off Feet”, “Hands In The Ruck’’ and “Diving In” – proof that they don’t get involved in the scrap on the floor.
In earlier writings we drew attention to two of the Lions’ defensive vulnerabilities: opponents running from deep and the weak link that is Elton Jantjies. Against the Cheetahs it was encouraging to see that the Lions defence in broken play was far more connected. As for Elton, his missed tackles against the Chiefs and the Highlanders put him amongst the competition’s worst defenders – an unacceptable trait for a flyhalf and money for jam for teams who want easy momentum – so it was encouraging to see him stand his ground on Saturday. He has a question mark on his CV, but we all want to see him pull on the green jersey in June.
If anything this game against the Cheetahs pointed to something that’s been happening since the Lions’ season started, and indeed since Ackerman first took over – continual improvement. They’ve been growing from year to year and from match to match, unrecognisable from the whipping boys who habitually propped up the table. The Lions aren’t just making a run at the Super Rugby play-offs, they’re on a mission to take back their crown.