Len Massyn (L) and Elton Jantjies have been at the forefront of the Lions’ improved defensive efforts. (Gallo Images)
- The Lions’ biggest improvement since local rugby’s resumption has been their defence.
- After looking hapless at the start of the year, the men from Ellis Park have conceded the third least tries in Super Rugby Unlocked and boast the best tackle success rate.
- Head coach Ivan van Rooyen believes it’s down to technical tweaks as well as a player corps that’s bought into the system.
By the time this year’s Super Rugby campaign was cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March, the Lions’ defence almost had as much leaks as the copious number of daily calls Joburg Water has to attend to.
They conceded 27 tries in just six starts – almost five per game – and looked distinctly hapless under the tutelage of a rookie defence coach in Sean Erasmus.
Seven months later, the transformation has been rather dramatic.
Only 10 tries have been given away in four matches – the third fewest in Super Rugby Unlocked – while the Lions also boast a tackle success rate of 86%, the best in the tournament.
It’s rather disappointing that they won’t be able to flaunt their newfound watertight-ness again in Unlocked – last weekend’s Pumas meeting was postponed (and a rescheduling seems unlikely) while they have a bye this week – but the platform has been laid.
“Our defence is arguably the biggest aspect of our play that’s changed since lockdown,” said Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions’ head coach.
“We undeniably made some tweaks to the system – Sean has done some great work.”
Yet, as has become a predominant theme since the Pumas’ magnificent effort against the All Blacks, it’s attitude that’s proven to be the key for the Lions’ improvement.
“The cherry on top of our improved results on defence has been the buy-in of the players. They’ve embraced it and are keen to help improve it from their side as well,” said van Rooyen.
“The guys have brought their A-game. They’re putting their bodies on the line. Obviously, that now needs to be complemented with results, but we’re proud and we’re growing.
“Sean will be the first guy to admit that we weren’t on par in the early months of 2020, but our graph is going upwards.”
Skipper Elton Jantjies, who himself has ratcheted up his tackling in missing none of his 18 tackles over the last three weeks, reiterated that he and his team-mates have taken accountability.
“There were a few things that we needed to work on at the start,” said the Springbok flyhalf.
“We had a look at things and hats off to coach Sean, who’s really worked hard. He’s helping us make good decisions.
“It’s tough to put your head in certain areas consistently, but that’s what the boys are doing the last few weeks. It shows our character.
“It’s a massive boost for me, to see that no matter how old you are, it’s still tough to get down to an opponent’s knees for 80 minutes.”