The semi -final matches were wonderful to watch, even if TV viewing is necessarily restricted.
The Hurricanes remain favourites to win the final because of ‘home advantage’ and a consistent approach to performance in all levels of the game in nearly every match throughout the competition. The key to beating them lies in the ability of the Lions to smother and counter Barrett and Perenara, their devastating attackers at half-back. Not an easy task. Barrett is a mercurial player at the very top of his form. He is comfortable kicking off either foot, gets touch when needed and runs into space with effortless ease.
From the base of the scrum and in ‘broken’ play, Perenara is dynamic on the break and links effectively with his support players. Near the try -line, he has all the slippery power of a determined leguaan. So this is where the Lions’ first focus must be directed; great pressure must be applied.
Jantjies was brilliant against the Crusaders in their semi-final. His judgement was sure and decisive. Although he favours the chip off the ‘wrong’ i.e. inside foot, he has practised it well and it has come off so far. His defence is solid and he has an unerring gift for the gap when needed. He is also a devastating ‘linker’. With his increasingly accurate goal-kicking, he carries a great deal of the Lions’ hopes. I hope he performs to his top potential in Wellington. He knows he will be a major target for the marauding Hurricanes’ loose trio come Saturday. He needs to play under pressure with calm confidence and concentration.
In this regard, I recall a match I played in for Rhodesia in the sixties at Hartsfield, Bulawayo, against a touring Springbok B squad. They clearly underestimated us, we dominated at half-back owing to some fine possession from tight and loose, gaps opened up and passes led to tries. We gave away a few soft tries but managed a 22-22 result. My opposite flyhalf was Faan Conradie, a neat player from SW Districts. He went on to play for the Boks on an unsuccessful tour of Ireland and Scotland later that year, both tests being lost. In the second mini-international in Salisbury, it was a different story. The Springbok B team complimented Ted Alexander, at scrumhalf and me, at flyhalf, by targeting us as ‘danger men’. Their loose trio were all over us, we were forced to play under pressure, attempted catch-up rugby and lost.
So, in this final match, the performance of half-backs cannot be over-stressed. It is their decisions which can turn a game once the ball has been won. The key to winning this final Super 18 match lies in as near-perfect an application of the basics as possible. Once possession is won, it must be treasured and used to good effect. The ball cannot be wasted when the forwards have worked so hard to win it. Passing has to be at the highest level, accurate, true and well-directed.
In their semi-final match against the Lions at Ellis Park, the Highlanders missed a try-scoring opportunity in the first half when a final pass to Osborne on the left wing was directed behind his right shoulder. It cost them dear. So small are the margins in a tight game. Of course, it’s difficult to gauge whether the pass has been poorly sent or the receiver has overrun the ball. In Osborne’s case, it was the former. Most receivers lying wide, like to receive the pass as ‘flat’ as possible so they can explode on to it at speed. This requires great precision, timing and skill. Skosan on the wing for the Lions is a master timer of receiving the flat ball. Give him a sniff and he’s in.
I am sure the Lions will take the field well-prepared physically, tactically and psychologically. The obvious advice includes: forget the home crowd, keep focused, do your job, take your opportunities and kick your goals. Self-discipline will be a priority. Defence must be solid. Watch the Hurricanes for an extra man on the blindside. Stop Barrett in his tracks. Those are some of the pointers on the way to victory for this talented and imaginative and confident Lions outfit. I wish them well.