Lions rugby fans swell with pride

It would need either a spectacularly perverse or rhetorically gifted man to erect a defence of contemporary South African sport. Entrenched administrative elites, the falling rand (making overseas camps and tours prohibitive) and the Elysian fields of India and France for our cricketers and rugby players mean we’re fast becoming a developing nation basket case.

As in politics, so in sport; the future looks vrot with danger.

From Loftus Versfeld, of all places, comes a ray of light and hope. On Saturday night, in front of an audience with a smattering of fans in watermelon hats, the Golden Lions beat the Blue Bulls by 56 points to 20, the kind of result that has grown men ordering a second double brandy and Coke before they’ve finished their first.

Remember, this was once a venue – when slick Vic and Fourietjie were in their pomp – that was dubbed Fortress Loftus. Now it lies ruined, sacked by the pride. Loftus will never quite be the same again.

Later that evening and Allister Coetzee named a handful of Lions players in his first Springbok squad of the winter. Those who weren’t named in the main group – such as Franco Mostert and Malcolm Marx – were named in what is effectively a Springbok shadow side.

As Super Rugby approaches the recess, so pride is back for the pride. Lions fans can look forward to the resumption of the programme with delicious expectation.

The margin of victory over the traditional blue-shirted foes was sweet, make no mistake, but it was the manner of the win that had fans creeping to the edge of their riempies.

Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin impressed upon their players the need for a quick ball; once-achieved, Faf de Klerk, in all likelihood the new Bok scrumhalf, had his line scampering away like, well, Springboks.

The Bulls were either unable to or chose not to compete at the breakdown. It meant that well-presented ball – indeed, it could have appeared on a meat platter surrounded by crab apples – sparked wave upon wave of Lions attack.

The tempo at which they played and the requirements to defend consistently meant the Bulls were swamped. This was blitzkrieg rugby. Why Bulls coach Nollis Marais didn’t bring on Deon Stegmann to compete at the breakdown earlier than he did is anyone’s guess. But, even then, it might not have made the blindest bit of difference.

Our rugby scribes are fond of treating each game of Super Rugby as an isolated incident. Because this is such an intense, prolonged competition, it makes greater sense to see matches as part of a continuum or tradition.

An example: six weeks ago the Hurricanes visited Ellis Park. They flooded the breakdown, drifted over the off-side line when they could and exploited an inexperienced referee known for a naive belief in letting the game flow. The result? The Lions were spooked. Elton Jantjies was harried to the point where he lost his composure; Warren Whiteley, his skipper, was unable to offer him any protection or comfort; and Ackermann and De Bruin weren’t able to get their message on to the field quickly enough.

An intercept try or two later and the game was over. There were 60 minutes left to play, but so comprehensively had the Lions been out-thought that they couldn’t recover.

A week later and the Hurricanes were well-beaten by the Sharks in Durban, coach Gary Gold having watched carefully the ’Canes rampage at Ellis Park. The Sharks were good on kick-off, played a savvy kicking game and contested the breakdown more effectively than the Lions had – and ran out deserved winners.

The moral of the story? This is a tactical competition in which one can only make proper sense of matches in comparison to one another, not as isolated incidents.

In the current context this means that the Bulls are unlikely to receive such a comprehensive snotklap again. Correlatively, it means the Lions will have to reinvent themselves by the time they next play in early July, after the winter internationals in June.

That game is against the Sharks at Ellis Park on July 2. Listen carefully and you can almost hear Gauteng hold its breath in expectation.

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