Johannesburg - The biggest criticism levelled against the Emirates Lions this season has been their lacklustre efforts in defence, but against the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday that failing became an offensive weapon that denied their hosts and helped secure an impressive victory.
Some might argue that the Stormers made it easy with lateral play and an uninspired attack, but there can be no doubt that the defensive system of the Joburg-based outfit has shown significant improvement in the United Rugby Championship (URC) when compared to what preceded it.
The Lions attempted an energy-sapping 190 tackles in their 37-19 victory on Saturday, completing a colossal 170.
In comparison, the Stormers only made 63 attempts, completing 47 tackles in the process.
It was close to a 90% completion rate for the men from Joburg in that department, but it was not only the fact that they made their tackles, but also the physicality in the contact area that was so satisfying.
Moreover, the Lions defended their line from several sorties like Trojans, making their opposition, who enjoyed over 60% possession and territory, work for every blade of grass, while forcing errors and turnovers.
Former Springbok and Lions player Jaque Fourie, now the defensive coach for the team, has seemingly had a measurable impact, and that should please head coach Ivan van Rooyen, the players and their fans immensely.
“At the end, on the tryline, we showed the character of where we are currently,” Van Rooyen said after the match.
“Physically, mentally, where we are as a team in terms of culture, the willingness to improve, the willingness to fight, so I am really proud of the boys.
“I don’t want to say it was just the defence – I really felt that we are improving in majority of the areas – but it probably was the point of difference (Saturday).”
It was not only the staunch defence that led the Lions to victory, but also finally building on the foundation of their forward dominance – one of their strengths during the URC campaign.
Captain Burger Odendaal, who had a noteworthy performance and was unlucky to lose out on the Player of the Match awarded to Vincent Tshituka, made it a point to call attention to the first-eights efforts after the match.
Said the skipper: “It is great to get a couple of line-breaks from launches or strike-plays.
“I think, if there is somewhere we really have been playing well off, it is turnovers from other teams, but I felt (Saturday) on our launches, we were dangerous on attack from our set-pieces.
“Hats off to the forwards. They really got stuck in, especially in the scrums, and they just laid the foundation for the backs to strike from there.
“Hopefully, we can do a lot more of that in the future.”
The one area that will remain a concern, and which Van Rooyen and his team will need to work hard on, is their discipline.
The Joburgers were sanctioned on three occasions, Edwill van der Merwe, Willem Alberts and Jaco Visagie all spending time in the bin. They also conceded 14 penalties.
Against teams with more enterprise on attack, and confident in their approach, a collective 30 minutes down a man and eight penalties conceded in their own half will be costly.
Luckily, the team have the festive season break to work on this particular area of concern before facing table-topping Leinster in Ireland on January 7.