The Lions need belief to take it a step further this year from competition finalists to competition winners writes Gavin Rich for Business Day Business Day
During a stoppage in play in the Lions’ clash with the Hurricanes in Wellington, the catchy tune and lyrics of Journey’s “Don’t stop believing” were played over the stadium sound system and were transmitted to the television sets of those watching.
There was plenty of aptness and irony for the Lions as at the time they were down 14-0 and half-time was approaching. The Lions had been pretty much shut out of the game to that point and they needed something. Clearly, they did have some belief, for within a few minutes of that moment their scrumhalf Nic Groom crossed for a try.
It brought the Lions back into the game as they went to the break with just a seven point deficit and being so close after being dominated for most of the half would have flooded some more belief into the players’ systems at half-time. Hope though can be tantalising and demoralising and the Hurricanes extinguished it the third quarter.
The million dollar question is do the Lions have the belief that they can go a step further than previous years and win the competition? If you can answer that question you will know whether they can or they can’t. Take away belief and you have a carriage but no horse to pull it.
The late Lions rally in Wellington that made the final difference between the two teams just nine points was a case of too little too late and in a sense summed up their Super Rugby challenge over the past three years – so near and yet so far.
It is because they have been beaten finalists twice and been so close to touching the Holy Grail that belief is going to have to be such a strong element of their campaign over the next few weeks. For after suffering five defeats in 11 starts it appears they will have to do it the hard way, meaning they will have to travel away for a final if they get that far.
That will be a big mountain for them to climb, assuming of course that they even win the local conference, which is no longer the certainty it appeared to be just two weeks ago. When they whitewashed the Waratahs in Sydney the Lions showed they could win away but beating a New Zealand team in New Zealand is an entirely different proposition.
Their most likely opponents in a final will be the Hurricanes or the Crusaders. The Hurricanes haven’t lost at home to a South African team since the Stormers beat them in 2013, and their loss to the Sharks in a freaky game in 2014 (the Sharks played much of it with 14 men) is the only blemish for the Crusaders in a two decade domination of SA teams in Christchurch.
If we decide that because the Blues appear to be perennially troubled we should not rank them among the proper Kiwi contenders, then it has been another bleak year for South Africa in New Zealand. The Sharks brought some relief with an unexpectedly comfortable home win over the Highlanders. But the failure of the South African flag-bearer in the competition to beat a New Zealand side home or away has to be concerning from a national viewpoint.
The Lions will get a chance to redress that when they play the Highlanders in Dunedin in their final tour match, but to do that they have issues needing sorting out. The forwards too often lack the energy and what some might refer to as anger that they had in previous seasons and tend to drift in and out of games. They are not riding the crest of the wave like they were in previous seasons and with some key leadership figures missing – and now it looks like they will be missing Malcolm Marx too – you have to wonder whether they have the same hunger and, here comes that word again, belief that they had before.
The Lions back row may also just be too small. They may lack the big gainline breaking traditional South African No7 that could make all the difference. Allied to that, they also need to rediscover the game clarity that was a hallmark of their wins over the Stormers and Waratahs but has been absent subsequently.
They are still second on the overall log so they have time to recover and to work on their confidence and build belief. One thing we can be sure of is that without belief the best the Lions will achieve is being the nearly men once more.