Many of the Lions’ victories in 2015 were orchestrated in the second 40 minutes of their matches. It shows just how willing the players are to go for 80 minutes. There were few long-term injuries, too, with only Derick Minnie being ruled out midway through the competition. The players were in top physical condition, allowing coach Johan Ackermann to just about pick who he wanted from one week to the next.
Every opposition team was viewed as exactly that – opposition. Names meant nothing to this bunch of Lions. They approached every match in the same manner and were never afraid to play with width and pace, the ball often moving from the scrumhalf’s hands to those of the wing’s. Even when they were down at half-time they backed their game and style to turn things around, and they did just that.
For all the talk of their expansive, ball-in-hand rugby, the stand out feature of the Lions this season was their defence. It’s a part of the game that’s often ignored and for the Lions it’s something that’s hurt them in the past. They improved drastically this season; their three wins overseas coming because of their tackling, the stand out defender being Warren Whiteley, but he was followed closely by a number of teammates.
The rise of real stars
Where does one start? In the space of two seasons, the Lions are ready to produce a bunch of Springboks. The front row forwards were excellent, Franco Mostert has been an unsung hero, Whiteley, Jaco Kriel and Warwick Tecklenburg were by far the best loose-trio of the SA sides, while at the back Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies stood head and shoulders above the rest. Harold Vorster is a star of the future, Lionel Mapoe was the best 13 and Ruan Combrinck ticked every box.
A dynamic coaching team
Considering he was a no-nonsense lock forward who rarely did more than bash the ball up, Johan Ackermann’s thinking of the game has been a revelation. He knows how important set-pieces are, but he also knows how rugby should be played – with ball in hand, asking questions of the opposition from everywhere on the field. He’s been wonderfully supported by assistants Swys de Bruin and JP Ferreira.
Winning at home is always crucial, but it’s the close matches you’re able to clinch when away from familiar ground that sets good teams apart. Winning three times in Australasia was massive and showed just how much the team has grown, while victory in Bloemfontein bagged the Lions a four-try bonus point. They were also oh so close to picking up wins at Loftus and Newlands, but walked away with bonus points from both.
Ackermann has managed to build a fairly big pool of Super Rugby quality players in the last two years, one of the main reasons behind him rotating his players from one week to the next. The depth he’s created has meant that even when there are injuries the man stepping in is just as good as the man he’s replacing. It’s also allowed players to rest and come back hungry and determined to stay in the team. There’s nothing like good competition in a squad.
While rotation of players was always a priority of Ackermann’s, he stuck largely to the same group of players throughout the 18 weeks. The group became a tight-knit unit, with every player knowing his role and what was expected of him, whether that was starting or coming off the bench. Everyone was treated the same and knew what his role was in a specific week.
It wasn’t that long ago that visiting teams looked at a match against the Lions at Ellis Park and thought that’s five points in the bag. Playing at home did little to assist the Lions. Not anymore. It’s again a venue visiting teams fear coming to. The fans are back in their numbers, they’re loud and intimidating and the Lions are cashing in. The wins against the Highlanders, Bulls and Waratahs is proof enough that Ellis Park is again a fortress.
Whiteley played every minute of every match this season. He led the team outstandingly, and was a role model on the field and off it. His numbers over the course of the 1280 minutes he played are simply sensational. He not only was the perfect link-man between backs and forwards, he was also a key line-out jumper and his 231 tackles made, with just seven missed, leads the way and won’t be matched. An inspiration. - The Star
Original source: Lions show some real bite