Rugby: Lions expose a chink in Chiefs' armour

By Dylan Cleaver

Sonny Bill Williams showed his class against a determined Lions outfit at Pukekohe on Saturday night. Photo / Getty Images
Sonny Bill Williams showed his class against a determined Lions outfit at Pukekohe on Saturday night. Photo / Getty Images

John Mitchell believes the 14th-placed Lions might have opened the door for the rest of the competition to catch the Chiefs.

His inexperienced and over-matched side were disposed of easily enough by the Chiefs, 34-21 in front of a big crowd at Pukekohe, but not before they had achieved what no other side had managed thus far, scoring three tries.

During the previous 10 weeks, only the Highlanders and Cheetahs had managed to breach their line twice, so that one of the weakest teams in the competition managed three tries should be of great concern to the New Zealand Conference leaders.

"There's still a long way to go in this competition and they'd be the first to acknowledge that," Mitchell said. "Clearly some other top teams would have seen some things that might encourage them going forward."

Like the fact that all three tries were launched from lineout drives, which the Chiefs, minus the strength of Liam Messam, Sona Taumalolo and Brodie Retallick, seemed powerless to counter.

"There'll be a bit of work done on that this week," was Chiefs' coach Dave Rennie's pithy assessment.

"There's a couple of things in line with that. Not just defending it but we gave away a lot of penalties that allowed them to kick to the corners. Discipline was not good enough."

Future opponents might not be so keen to follow Mitchell's other, more radical, lead. Rather than attacking the narrow channel, where the 84kg Aaron Cruden lives, the Lions thought big.

"We were after 12 and 13 in first phase. We got there a few times," Mitchell said. " ... I'm a great believer in going for the two biggest guys in the heart of the team."

He didn't get a lot of change out of Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams. They were part of the reason why the Chiefs were still able to run out to a comfortable bonus-point victory. They possessed enough class to translate turnovers into points in the time it takes to say "nine wins in a row".

Rennie and his collaborators will be disappointed in the absence of intensity and the lack of attention to detail, but it's a lot easier being disappointed from the top of the table than from the bottom.

Mitchell acknowledged his former team had the right foundations.

"Their hard areas have come good. They obviously carry well. The forwards actually look like when there is chaos and they don't get their way, they're still prepared to do their work to go forward."

The former All Black coach now finds himself in the curious position of building for a future that might not exist. The South African Rugby Union has got itself into a bind with promises being made to slot a new, Port Elizabeth-based franchise into the Super 15. They have lobbied Sanzar for an expanded competition but in reality they are going to have to merge or excise one of their existing franchises.

The Cheetahs and Lions have history as an uneasy merger, when they were known as the Cat.

"I don't really make those decisions," Mitchell said. "We've [Golden Lions-Transvaal] been around 120 years now and I don't see us moving on too quickly and we were last year's Currie Cup champions.

"There's a lot of grey area. There's certainly been no definition by Saru and so I'm sure there'll be not only political, but legal ramifications.

"There's a lot to be done yet."

The Lions now prepare to face the Blues in the Battle of the Basement.

- NZ Herald

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