Super Rugby

Lions: Lost in a wilderness

The highly likely, looming recess for Super Rugby 2020 due to the coronavirus would provide merciful relief in many ways for the embattled Lions.

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One of the few major global sporting events still firing on most cylinders as things stand, Saturday’s events in Auckland saw the Lions slip to a one-from-six record as hosts the Blues earned a consummate 43-10 triumph.

It was the usually only moderate New Zealand team’s fourth win in a row, and their third over South African opponents as they had already claimed the away scalps of the Bulls and Stormers.

The only consolation from a SA perspective is that the Blues won’t - at least in ordinary season, if the competition does continue - get the chance for a clean sweep of teams from our shores, as they don’t play the Sharks this year.

At least as it stands, the Lions are due to play one more tour fixture against the Highlanders in Dunedin next Saturday ... and their supporters would not have reason to be too unhappy if it is called off.

Ivan van Rooyen’s fragile charges have been soundly beaten on the safari by all of the Waratahs, Rebels and now Blues, the latest reverse seeing them leak six tries (to their own miserly one) along the way.

This is officially now the Johannesburg outfit’s worst start to a campaign since the ill-fated 2012 season, when an opening-round victory over the Cheetahs was followed by an 11-match losing streak and eventual last-place overall (15th) with three wins from 16 fixtures.

The Lions were then dumped from the competition the following year, before re-entering it in 2014 and slowly rebuilding themselves into a notable force between 2016 and 2018 when they were finalists each time - they look light years away from those sorts of heights at present.

Until the Blues match, the Lions were level-pegging with their 2015 early-campaign performance with a one-from-five return, but the side of five years ago did win their next match then, against the Rebels in Melbourne.

It is more from a strategic and structural point of view than in terms of spirit, arguably, that the present team look all at sea ... which puts the spotlight quite glaringly on their inexperienced brains trust.

That they still have a certain desire and willingness was demonstrated at Eden Park by the fact that a near-cricket score looked on the cards when the free-running Blues - loving the raggedness of the Lions’ first line of defence - notched their sixth dot-down soon after the start of the final quarter.

The tourists then achieved a very minor moral “triumph” by ensuring no further haemorrhaging, although the main damage had long been done.

All Black powerhouse Rieko Ioane was very much to the fore in the Blues’ repeated, high-octane raids, his pace and explosiveness at outside centre (where he seems to be enjoying a new lease of life) just being too much for the physically unremarkable Lions back division - Ioane was responsible for a brace of tries.

While they were still at the races for a fair period of the first half, though, the Lions did themselves no favours with some questionable decision-making ... like opting to kick for the corner (and then winning a fatally too sloppy lineout that dragged them backwards) when captain Elton Jantjies really should have banged over a kick to nose them 10-8 ahead in the 26th minute.

Repeated, porous moments on defence, however, were really what buried the Lions.

As commentator and former All Black scrumhalf Justin Marshall observed at one stage: “With (so many) missed tackles ... that does not help in terms of getting your game-plan going.”

Jantjies was suitably contrite afterwards: “Psychologically, our (lack of) discipline cost us. We have got to take ownership, do things better.”

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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