The Chiefs are the SuperRugby champions once again and the Lions will be joining them in the competition next year after the dramatic final weekend of action in the toughest tournament in rugby. By KEN BORLAND.
The Chiefs made up a 12-22 deficit in the final quarter to beat the Brumbies 27-22 in the final in Hamilton and the Waikato men are clearly deserved champions. The defence of a title is almost always harder than winning it in the first place and the Chiefs’ back-to-back crowns were achieved the hard way, by topping the log, beating the Crusaders and then changing the momentum of the final in dramatic fashion.
The Lions were beaten 23-18 by the Southern Kings in the second leg of the promotion/relegation clash at Ellis Park, but the seven-point winning margin they claimed in Port Elizabeth was enough for them to win the series on aggregate. The Kings also mounted a stirring comeback in the final quarter, taking advantage of the yellow card to centre Stokkies Hanekom to overturn the 9-18 deficit that seemed to have settled the relegation contest. But in the end they were just one score short of returning to a competition in which they achieved the most wins by a side in their first season.
The Lions were roared on by 50 000 fans on a chilly night in Johannesburg and one wonders where all the people came from, judging by how sparse the crowds have been at Ellis Park for the last couple of years. Hopefully they don’t disappear into the night as quickly as they came and they have a responsibility to match the support the Kings enjoyed in Port Elizabeth – their attendance average was the third best in the competition – when the Lions face another daunting SuperRugby challenge next year.
Perhaps the Lions’ union bosses should take a hint from the fact that the Kings were based at the modern, superb Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Would the Lions not attract more consistent support if they played at the FNB or even Orlando stadium?
The Kings, bringing tremendous passion and fiery commitment, as expected with their survival as a team hanging in the balance, dominated the opening exchanges and really squeezed the Lions with their kicking game. Scott van Breda also kicked two penalties to give the Kings a 6-0 lead.
The Lions were really struggling to get out of their own half, the Kings enjoying 83% territory in the opening quarter, and some outstanding defence was also suffocating them.
But the one thing the Lions did prove during their otherwise rather meaningless series of challenge matches was that they have a pack that is up to the rigours of SuperRugby.
A top-class scrum, anchored by loosehead prop and captain JC Janse van Rensburg, and a formidable rolling maul are valuable weapons and partly a result of having Johan Ackermann and Balie Swart on the coaching staff.
Using their scrum and also driving effectively off the lineout, the Lions enjoyed a resurgence in the last 10 minutes of the first half, Elton Jantjies kicking a penalty and Derick Minnie being driven over the tryline, and they took a firm grip on the game after half-time.
The Kings scrum could probably be heard creaking in the nicely-paved plaza outside the stadium and Jantjies was able to give the Lions an 11-9 lead early in the second half after loosehead Schalk Ferreira had been penalised for losing his bind.
Flank Jaco Kriel then surged over for a try that was converted by Jantjies (18-9), enjoying the acres of space that a Kings defence that was far too bunched afforded him out wide.
The seven-point deficit from the first game meant that the Kings had to score 17 points in the last 20 minutes to avoid relegation and the Lion ensured that they had a sniff by making some crucial mistakes.
Jantjies missed an easy penalty after a powerful scrum had turned over possession and wings Chrysander Botha and Anthonie Volmink counter-attacked superbly – the Springbok flyhalf was poor with the boot in general – and Hanekom was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle. The decision was fair according to the letter of the law because he lifted an opposition player and then just dropped him.
The response by the Kings was immediate as they kicked the Hanekom penalty to touch and set the rolling maul, which was defended well by the Lions. After a couple of pick-and-goes by the forwards and a sniping run by scrumhalf Shaun Venter that was stopped just short of the line, Ferreira, with Engelbrecht behind him, charged through replacement scrumhalf Guy Cronje to score.
Wing Van Breda, who was impressive with the boot as he came in for the injured Demetri Catrakilis, converted and then scored the Kings’ second try with just six minutes remaining.
The Lions were in possession deep inside the Kings’ half but Kriel was stripped of the ball by the abrasive Jacques Engelbrecht. The focus of the Lions flank seemed to be on equipment failure, however, as Kriel was fiddling with his headgear, which seemed to be slipping down the forehead, just before he went into contact.
The ball was quickly shipped to the backline by the Kings and Shane Gates, the replacement centre, made a searing break down the middle of the field. From there the Kings just needed to draw-and-pass and Van Breda was over in the corner.
The tricky conversion was nailed and the Kings, 23-18 ahead, needed just one more score to deny promotion for the Lions.
By now the crowd was frantic and George Whitehead must have felt like he was the epicentre of all that pressure as he failed to kick a penalty to touch that would have given the Kings a prime opportunity to attack inside the Lions’ half.
The future of rugby in the Eastern Cape is now once again in doubt. This Kings team, the most determined of new boys on the block, will be dismantled with director of rugby Alan Solomons already heading to Edinburgh and most of their better players already linked to the likes of the Bulls.
It is obviously not ideal for South African rugby to have one of their biggest areas not represented by a professional team, never mind that the Eastern Cape is the historical home of black rugby.
The future of the Lions is not exactly rosy either. The quality of their play suggests they will themselves be involved in the rigours of avoiding relegation next year, unless they are able to substantially bolster their squad, reserve depth being vital as well in such a gruelling tournament.
But how are they going to be able to attract players to Ellis Park with the guarantee of just one year of SuperRugby? Providing they can put aside the whole arch-rivals tag that led to some spicy, niggly moments in the first half of the match, several of the Kings players might well be moving to the Lions in the next few months.
But in the meantime we should allow the Lions to enjoy their return to the top-flight – and give great credit to Ackermann and his coaching staff for ensuring their team was up to speed – and mourn with the Kings as what looked a promising crop has been cut back to grassroots in the Eastern Cape.
At the other end of the SuperRugby spectrum, the Brumbies began the final playing with military precision to another canny Jake White game plan.
A ferocious presence at the breakdowns, getting up quickly (or being offsides) and in the faces of the Chiefs on defence and the faultless boot of Christian Lealiifano were the main vehicles for their success as they racked up a 22-12 lead by the hour mark.
Having a top-class openside in George Smith – and lock Scott Fardy was also a prominent player at the breakdowns – was obviously a major support for the game plan and the Chiefs looked a hassled and flustered side as half-time approached.
A defence that rushed inwards from the wings cramped the Chiefs’ preferred expansive style and they conceded a crucial try in the 40th minute when scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow threw a wild pass right into where the defence was concentrated and Lealiifano pouched a brilliant pick-up and sped away for a 47-metre intercept try.
A tally of 10 turnovers in the first half indicated where the Chiefs’ problems lay and they conceded a penalty at the breakdown early in the second half when Fardy and Smith made a great team in catching Kerr-Barlow in possession.
A fifth penalty by Lealiifano, stemming from another Smith turnover, put the Brumbies 22-12 ahead after 59 minutes and they were perhaps already booking an open-top bus in Canberra for a ticker-tape parade.
And that is when the Chiefs showed their champion quality. An alteration to their breakdown strategy – committing an extra man to protect the ball – and deciding to be more direct with ball in hand turned the tide.
And with referee Craig Joubert starting to lose patience with the Brumbies’ spoiling tactics, the final quarter belonged to the Chiefs.
Brumbies scrumhalf Nic White produced a terrible kick to touch off a penalty, leading to a five-metre scrum for the Chiefs and then followed Kerr-Barlow as he went wide, opening up a lovely gap for flank Liam Messam to power through and cut the deficit to 17-22.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden missed the conversion – and kicked poorly throughout, missing two penalties as well – but it didn’t matter as the Chiefs scored again just four minutes later.
Centres Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Bundee Aki broke out of their own territory and Robbie Robinson then cruised through the defence after one little sidestep.
Cruden then put aside his bum kicking form to kick a late penalty and the Chiefs had the title in the bag.
So the Chiefs win the overall title and the Lions will be benefiting from several million rand more than they had this year, but the other big winner over the weekend was scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.
Du Preez, one of the heroes of the 2007 World Cup triumph, has been recalled to the Springbok squad for the Rugby Championship. His Japanese club, Suntory Sungoliath, have however insisted he only play in the Tests in South Africa.
People may well be asking questions as to why Du Preez has been selected when he’s only available on a part-time basis and whether he will be sharp enough after playing for the last two years in the less intense Japanese league.
But one can hardly blame Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer for wanting to have a look at Du Preez, one of the all-time great scrumhalves, given South Africa’s stocks in that position at the moment and the fact that his contract in Japan is coming to an end and he will be available for the 2015 World Cup.
The inexperienced Jano Vermaak and the solid but unspectacular Ruan Pienaar are the other scrumhalves in the squad, while the young Piet van Zyl will replace Du Preez in the squad when they travel overseas. Francois Hougaard is out for the rest of the season after surgery on the ankle that has hampered him all year.
The success of George Smith with the Brumbies is a sign that using Japan-based players might not be on the wrong side of reason, and Meyer has also chosen seven other overseas-based players, the most ever, in both Vermaak and Pienaar, Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana, Juandre Kruger, Francois Louw and Gurthro Steenkamp.
Du Preez, experienced Toulouse prop Steenkamp and fit-again eighthman Duane Vermeulen are the three recalled players who did not feature in the incoming quadrangular series in June.
The main criticism of the squad will be the composition of the front row where Meyer has chosen just a single specialist tighthead in the over-worked Jannie du Plessis and four looseheads, although the Springbok coach hopes to convert Coenie Oosthuizen into a number three.
The Cheetahs hero is however definitely more comfortable at loosehead and Meyer really needs to develop the tighthead talent that is there in Oosthuizen’s team-mate Lourens Adriaanse and Wiehahn Herbst of the Sharks. Frans Malherbe of the Stormers is also a candidate but is currently out injured.
Springbok squad – Willie le Roux, Zane Kirchner, JJ Engelbrecht, Jean de Villiers, Juan de Jongh, Jan Serfontein, Bryan Habana, Bjorn Basson, Morne Steyn, Pat Lambie, Fourie du Preez, Jano Vermaak, Ruan Pienaar, Duane Vermeulen, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Francois Louw, Siya Kolisi, Juandre Kruger, Franco van der Merwe, Eben Etzebeth, Flip van der Merwe, Jannie du Plessis, Coenie Oosthuizen, Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Tendai Mtawarira, Gurthro Steenkamp, Trevor Nyakane. DM
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