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.