Written 4 April 2016

Although the Chiefs powered past the Brumbies in a display of relentless, ruthless and skilful rugby and exhibited for all how the game of rugby union should be played, I enjoyed the Lions versus Crusaders match even more. Perhaps it’s parochialism. 

The Lions have been a revelation over the past few seasons. They understand and apply the essentials of going forward, running at speed and support play. In the match against the Crusaders, they were exhilarating. Following on the brilliant try by the visitors in the first minute, the Lions came back with an even more superb try, which saw eight players handle the ball before Lionel Mapoe went over. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better try.

So the match see-sawed back and forth. Jantjes missed a vital penalty, Read engineered a try for Crotty, Faf de Klerk gave three bad passes to the right – at head height – and from one of the  consequent rucks, the Crusaders turned the ball over and there was a sparkling distribution of the ball, ending with slick passing to take them over the line. What also turned the close game was yet another ‘loopy’ pass from Faf de Klerk which was intercepted and Jonny Mc Nicholl was away. (Last week remember, van der Walt gave away 7 points with a loose pass intercepted by Faddes of the Highlanders.)

Just before half time, Elton Jantjes, so much more confident this season, timed his run around to the blindside for an excellent try. I always feel when there is a scrum near the centre of the field that the attacking side should score by creating the extra man. Either bring in the fullback or interplay with the openside flank and then swing it wide or have the ‘other’ centre come around on the outside of his partner to take the half gap and send the wing away. It doesn’t happen often and I think coaches – even Jamie Joseph and Johan Ackerman – haven’t thought this one through.

I was once again amazed at the size of the players. Did I mention last week that McCloskey, the current Irish centre is the same size as the 1974 British and Irish Lions captain and lock, Willie John McBride? I looked at Ben Franks at tighthead for the Crusaders, huge thighs hardly tapering to his short socks  and, during another interminable delay for another over-rated scrum, reflected on his diet. It can’t, surely, include a light salad. Perhaps, I mused, each evening a whole roasted sheep washed down with flagons of the finest New Zealand ale, all the while discussing, no doubt, the nuances of William Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ with his gargantuan brothers. I jest.

Still on the Lions; I remain amazed at the workload of Malcolm Marx, who stands at hooker but, of course doesn’t hook. His power and drive in loose play are outstanding. Then add his replacement, the energetic ‘demented warthog’ (courtesy of Nick Mallett) with the unstoppable runs for the line – Akker van der Merwe! He plays riveting rugby. Add to that the performance of the explosive Jaco Kriel, back to his best form, but closely marked.

Despite heroic efforts and brilliant play, the Lions lost the match or, to be fair the Crusaders won it. They took their chances, scoring two ‘soft’ tries off careless errors from the home side. The ‘never-say-die’ Lions lost through a few moments of lapsed concentration. In the cold light of day, the momentum changed dramatically in the first fifteen minutes of the second half. Were the Lions expecting this onslaught and prepared for it? It didn’t look like it.  Crusaders 43; Lions 37. An incredible display of rugby at its best.

The match in which the visiting Chiefs took on the Brumbies was another dramatic affair, with rugby played at the highest level. When I watched the Chiefs’ tactic – well-rehearsed no doubt – of running their way out of trouble from the red zone, I thought ‘Why kick the ball away when you can thunder forward and use interpassing to gain ground?’ They were incredibly calm under pressure and confident of their support. Some of the tries were glorious, one of them scored by Lowe after ten men had handled the ball. Another unforgettable moment came when the astute, assured and skilled Cruden chipped a left foot diagonal for Lowe to take and score. Sheer brilliance.

Despite the efforts of Pocock and Fardy, the Chiefs were superior at the breakdown and that made a major difference. Ngatai is a marvellous centre and Cane leads a committed and very powerful pack of forwards. Just too strong in the end, with the brilliant Damien McKenzie, working his magic every time he got the ball. Even under the pressure of booing from a group of ex-convict yobs in the crowd, he gave his wry smile and kicked all goals bar one. The visitors were full value for their 48-23 victory against a good Brumbies outfit.

A few other observations:

The Force are a much improved side, as are the Rebels. Am I right in saying I detect a more confident, assured flyhalf in Peter Grant of the Force, now in his 32nd year. He is playing some fine rugby.

The Bulls overpowered a predictably courageous Cheetahs side in what looked to me like a traditional South African derby. There were some lovely moments, but i think both sides lack the flair of our NZ and OZ opponents.

Looking forward to next weekend.

Neil Jardine

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