Shootout at the Lions Den

Zelím Nel

Elton Jantjies and Quade Cooper are synonymous with attacking rugby, but goal-kicking will be front and centre when the Lions host the Rebels on Saturday.

Reigning SA Conference champs, the Lions slink into Round 5 with a 2-2 record after a sputtering start to the year while the Rebels, with former UCT coach Dave Wessels in his second season at the helm, are 3-0 atop the Australian Conference.

The Lions went big in 2017 when these teams last met, winning 47-10 at AAMI Park to stretch their dominance over the Melbourne outfit to four consecutive victories.

Jantjies converted five of six tries for the win against a Rebels outfit that had Fijian Ben Volavola pulling the strings at 10, but this week he’ll go toe-to-toe with Cooper, the 70-Test veteran who has made an eye-catching return from the rugby wilderness.

Wessels has reunited Cooper and Will Genia, the Wallabies halfback tandem that famously led the Reds to Super Rugby glory in 2011, and they have instantly upgraded the Rebels attack from muskets to automatic assault rifles.

Genia and Cooper have the range to circumvent half the defensive line with a single pass, and they complement this with the ability to identify and exploit kickspace at will. It’s a combination that is sure to stress-test the Lions defence, as it did the Brumbies and Highlanders.

Both teams have a similar profile in terms of the volume and effectiveness of their tackling and kicking, but the Australians boast a slicker attacking breakdown that has resulted in more clean breaks, defenders beaten and metres run, despite logging fewer carries and making the fewest passes in the comp (see: Cooper last week skipping the backline with a no-look, 20-metre pass to wing Marika Koroibete).

The Rebels attack launches from the second-most efficient lineout and has reaped 13 tries in three matches – five by winger Jack Maddocks who has eight linebreaks in three appearances. The Lions lineout is ranked fourth but they’re among the bottom five for metres run, clean breaks and defenders beaten.

The roles are reversed at scrum time where the Lions set piece is a mainstay (97% efficiency, ranked 5th), while a middling Rebels unit has conceded six penalties.

A tally of 14 tries scored and limited output in the attack categories reflects the Lions’ decision to frequently point at the poles. Jantjies is firing at 82% accuracy, good for fourth among goal-kickers this season and second on the points-scorer’s list.

But where the Lions have converted 14 of 17 shots at goal, the Rebels have missed seven of 17 attempts, and Cooper is only hitting the mark 63% of the time.

It’s a looming problem for the tourists because 52% of the Lions’ 104 points-allowed this season have come by way of the boot.

Flanker Marnus Schoeman has conceded the second-most penalties in the competition and the quality of the Rebels attacking breakdown is sure to put him in the ref’s crosshairs again.

De Bruin’s problem isn’t the goal-kicker, it’s winning kickable penalties. Both teams concede an average of 11 long-arms per match, but the Rebels have given up just one three-pointer to date while the Lions have watched the ball sail over their crossbar 14 times.

The 2019 Lions start strong and fade badly in the final quarter, scoring just one try while conceding 50% of their tries during this period.

The halftime toasted cheese does go down very well with De Bruin’s men who have crossed for five of their 14 tries in the third quarter, but the Rebels defence resupplies during the temporary ceasefire and they’ve only conceded one try immediately after the break and two more in the last 20.

Cooper will have to get his hands on the scoreboard remote early on to keep the Rebels within striking distance as the Highveld factor works against the tourists in the fourth quarter.

And though Jantjies may have a lead heading into the final stanza, the veteran place-kicker must be ready to put the Lions on his back and close out the game.

- Zelim Nel

Let's chat

  • Herman Schroder?

    It’s going to be tough no doubt and the Lions will need to play a well balanced game for 80 minutes as the Rebels have been particularly good in the last twenty. I’m not a great believer in altitude being a problem for overseas teams with superior conditioning a priority for most teams these days and coach Wessels will no doubt have done his homework. 50 / 50 in my books.

    However the choice of Seconds to ref this one is of great concern to me. Despite his pathetic refereeing in the Stormers match all eyes will be on him to see if he tries to compensate in this one. But this factor will only serve to inhibit him and he may then blow the other way to erase any doubt of him favouring the Lions. Not fair on the guy imo.

    Mallet slated him after the Stormers game not only for his incorrect decisions but his positional play. He relies on all the officials to confirm just about everything he does and is not decisive enough. No doubt Peyper has been given the assistant ref job to help Seconds cope which should never be necessary. Why give a local ref the job in the first place. The game is tough enough without creating unnecessary potential problem areas that could easily have been avoided. Cheers.

    • Barry

      I thought these were the Stormers match officials, what are they doing in Joburg? Perhaps we’ll see another 12th hour change!

      • John Comyn

        They are Stormers match officials so will obviously blow according to what they have been told. I could be wrong but I think they have been told to make sure The Rebels win this one.

        • Barry

          No, fair enough, I am sure Herman’s ok with that!

  • John Comyn

    Now we have the excuses all sorted we can comment on the article.

  • John Comyn

    Both are entertaining flyhalves at provincial level so it should be a good contest. Unfortunately when the going gets tough both go missing in action. This has been proven over and over for years at test level. It will be interesting to see if Cheika brings Cooper back into the Wallaby setup.

    • Herman Schroder?

      John not so. When one of the current flyhalves can take their teams to three consecutive SR finals then we can talk again. In any case please remember that when Jantjies was chosen by AC to play for the Boks he had only three Bok caps to his credit. Under AC not a single Bok prospered except maybe Peter Steph and we all know how difficult it was too shine behind a pathetic pack and AC’s non existent game plan.

      In any case why didn’t the Boks prosper last year under Rassie with Polly at the helm ? He had a few corkers as well if I can recall. I’m waiting for Polly to perform when the Bulls go on tour and their pack is under pressure, should be fun. Jantjies does need to up his game this year and was far better last Saturday. But it is a bit pointless anyway because the name of the game under Rassie will be dom krag and Polly will be the chosen one. More’s the pity. Cheers.

  • Barry

    To my mind, it’s more a battle of the coaches. Dave Wessels has made the world of difference to the Rebels and is very creative. I think they have the edge on strategy, but Lions are at home, so very close call!

  • Safmarine

    Interesting selections by Swys. The rag doll out at fullback for Green and Ruan on the wing. Marvin a boost for sure – wonder if they’ll try pull off a 13 man lineout again this weekend?
    Wessels a very astute coach and stem saam, he’ll have done his homework.
    Seconds is going to have an influence no doubt and Schoeman is a big worry at break down time. Such a hard man and so determined but his technique due to compensating for lack of size lets him down. Often misses the first go and is cleaned easily.
    Lions by 5-7.

  • SweetAz

    Depends on how the breakdown is reffed, if its strictly to the letter of the law the Lions will give up 10 penalties and lose by 15 points. If not, it could be a high scoring affair with anybody’s guess. First overseas game for touring teams is always tough and Rebels not known for travelling well.

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