OPINION: The attitude that impacted SA teams' altitude
STAT ATTACK: As that hackneyed proverb goes: ‘Defence is an indication of a team’s attitude.’
While it was sold as a ‘rewarding weekend’ for the five South African franchises – with all of them having qualified for the Round of 16 in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup – it was certainly not a good weekend.
The Bulls almost let it slip in a tight encounter against Bordeaux-Begles, eventually sneaking a 46-40 win in Pretoria, while the Stormers scored a late try to emerge 24-20 victors against Stade Francais in Paris – both qualifying for the Champions Cup play-offs.
In the Challenge Cup, the Sharks registered a significant 29-9 away win against the Dragons in Newport, but it was a disappointing finish to the pool stages for the Cheetahs, who suffered a heart-breaking 27-28 loss to Oyonnax in France, and even more disappointing for the Lions, who went down 28-38 against Ospreys in Johannesburg.
However, based on one of the key aspects required to advance in the play-offs of major international competitions, defence, very few of the South African sides are going to advance much further.
It was certainly a weekend of ‘poor attitude’, as none of the SA teams managed to get to the 90 percent tackle success rate – critical if a team has aspirations of getting to or winning the Final.
The worst of the deficient defenders were the Lions.
With 12 minutes remaining, they held a 28-17 lead. Ten minutes later they were 28-38 behind, a three-try blitz sealing their fate.
It was not just their late implosion that cost them.
The Lions managed only an 83 percent tackle success rate.
The players’ body language screamed a perfunctory approach and their apathetic approach cost them the game.
The Stormers were not any better – also managing a paltry 83 percent tackle success rate.
At least they had the satisfaction of having won – beating Stade Francais 24-20 – and the ‘excuse’ of having played in sub-zero temperatures and snow in the in-goal areas of Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris.
They have their powerful scrum – reducing Stade Francais to 12 players, with two props in the bin for repeated scrum infringements – and some Manie Libbok magic to thank for their late winner.
However, 27 missed tackles are certainly not the quality of defence that you expect from a normally miserly Stormers team.
The Bulls were also dissatisfying, to say the least, on defence.
At least, despite only making 85 percent of their tackles, they managed to hang on for a 46-40 win over Bordeaux-Begles in a 12-try thriller at Loftus Versfeld.
It was two Jaco van der Walt penalties stave off a last-quarter blitz by the French visitors.
On the hour mark the Bulls held a 40-21 lead – before a Paul Abadie try, sandwiched between two Tevita Tatafu five-pointers narrowed the gap to 40-43.
Van der Walt’s late match-sealing penalty (74th minute mark) could not mask the sloppy and leaky defence of the home team.
The Cheetahs also paid a dear price for their unsatisfactory defence – an 87 percent success rate that saw them miss 27 tackles.
Despite racing into a 19-0 lead in the first quarter, two yellow cards and a red card, allowed Oyonnax to snatch an 89th-minute winner (28-27), as Adrien Bordenave burst over well into additional time.
The Cheetahs held the lead for 74 minutes (81 percent of actual game time) – with two converted tries in the final quarter exposing the South African visitors’ defensive frailties.
They were also only at 87 percent in their loss to Section Paloise last week, two defeats that saw them tumble from first place in the Challenge Cup’s Pool One to third.
The Sharks, by some distance the worst South African team in the United Rugby Championship, have improved significantly during their Challenge Cup campaign.
They finished with an impressive 29-9 win over the Dragons in Newport this past weekend and while their tackle success rate was only 87 percent, they still denied the home team any tries.
Ironically the Sharks’ only loss was to the Cheetahs in Round Two in Bloemfontein – where the Cheetahs had just a 77 percent tackle success rate.
In earlier matches the Sharks’ defence stats showed them to be at 92 percent, 84 percent, 90 percent and 87 percent.
At over 88 percent, it makes their defence the most effective of all the SA teams and they were also the only outfit from the Republic to top their pool.
The South African franchises’ attitude towards defence has impacted on their ‘altitude’ in the European competitions.
It will continue to be a major factor when the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup resumes in April.