Three Points
Lions no longer just making up numbers
Brett McKay
April 1, 2015
The Lions won three of their four matches in Australasia © Getty Images
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Seven rounds into the Super Rugby season and the table looks like a mess, with the conference system meaning the teams in fourth and fifth spots overall are stuck where they are, despite having better records than one or both of the teams in second and third.

Predictably, after rapping the Crusaders and Waratahs last week, they crumbled under the pressure of Three Points' expectations. Rest assured, Crusaders and Waratahs fans, they won't be the last to fall to my mighty powers of praise this season.

In a weekend where there was significant competition table movement, here are a few things that stood out in Round 7.

It's time to rate these Lions

Three wins from four games on their trans-Tasman tour means it's time to stop talking about the Johannesburg-based Lions in the same dismissive tones used throughout their existence.

And a lot of the Lions' success has to come down to their machine-like backrow of Warren Whiteley, Warwick Tecklenberg, and Derick Minnie, who as a unit, and as we discussed this week on the Scrum5 podcast, might just be the best backrow in the competition. Their defensive numbers are phenomenal.

SANZAR's official stats supplier, Opta Sports, tell me the Lions are operating at an 88.2% tackling success rate, just over one percentage point below the competition-topping Hurricanes. Individually, Whiteley and Tecklenberg lead the tackle count for the competition, and by some margin. On 108 and 89 tackles, respectively, the gap to Michael Hooper in third spot is 10 tackles. Whiteley averages more than 15 tackles per game, and astonishingly, has missed just two tackle attempts in 2015. That's a 98.2% success rate, if you're playing at home.

But it's not just this year; Whiteley made 181 tackles in 15 games in 2014 (12 per game), and missing just four, for a 97.8% success rate. Whitely finished sixth overall last season - not first like I thought on the podcast - but with the exception of Western Force skipper Matt Hodgson, all the players above Whiteley played in the finals. He's a workhorse of the highest order.

This is something the Lions can really build on. The best teams in the competition all have solid backrows and breakdown presence, in addition to the attacking polish on top. The Lions have the foundations in place and if they can start converting that defensive and breakdown pressure into points, and especially counter-attacking points, they'll be a team on a very rapid rise.

Check and Checkmate. Or was it?

We've been all over the various pieces of Super Rugby coaching genius on Scrum this year, and on Saturday, it really looked like the Cheetahs had added themselves to the list of canny operators.

From an attacking lineout in the 28th minute, the Cheetahs took the ball down and quickly moved into driving maul.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs showed that they could still be clever around maul defence, even within the confines of SANZAR's plea to coaches to not use the 'disengagement' tactic at the lineout. As the Cheetahs brought the ball down, the Chiefs held their line but spilt either side of the would-be maul.

The Cheetahs managed to fool referee Craig Joubert with their rolling maul © Getty Images
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I threatened to unearth the Whiteboard last week, and this week I've done it; in the image above, I've highlighted Cheetahs back-rowers Boom Prinsloo, who took the ball from the lineout into the maul, and Heinrich Brussow, along with Chiefs' skipper Liam Messam, who you can see had raced around the side of the 'maul' to attack Brussow, the Cheetahs' preferred ball-carrier in the maul to this point in the game.

At the left of the shot, you can see how the Chiefs lineout has not pulled back, but has split either side of - but not engaged with - the Cheetahs maul. In the background, referee Craig Joubert is rightly calling 'play on', with no maul formed.

So the Cheetahs wanted to maul, but the Chiefs didn't want to engage. Chiefs call 'Check' at this point, and it looks like clever coaching.

But at the front of the maul, the Cheetahs realise there's space to be had, and begin to rumble forward. In this shot, whether Prinsloo or Brussow has the ball isn't important, but just know that Prinsloo brought it to ground, and that at some point, Brussow held it.

As the Cheetahs move forward through the gap, Prinsloo emerges from the front of the maul with the ball, and charges over for the try. The Chiefs thought they were being clever not engaging, but the Cheetahs quickly reacted and charged forward. Joubert awarded the try to Prinsloo and could be heard explaining, "the ball was at the front."

That's 'Checkmate', in response.

Except it wasn't. The ball going from Prinsloo to Brussow in the 'maul' and then back to Prinsloo was clearly illegal, and the Cheetahs should've been penalised for Prinsloo being offside. It was very clever play - from both sides, to be fair - but it should never have been allowed to stand, and going on recent examples, you have to wonder why the TMO, say, couldn't have quickly acted upon what he saw on the replay.

And remember, we've already had the TMO over-ruling tries this season, haven't we...

Scrum feeds: officially ridiculous again

It would seem World Rugby's crackdown on scrum feeds, announced and reasonably well enforced last year, is over. Where this time last year we saw referees more than happy to ping scrumhalves for feeding scrums well away from the straight line required, this all seems to have been forgotten over the first two months of Super Rugby.

On Friday night in Brisbane, Will Genia fed his first couple of scrums on the opposite side to where referee Glenn Jackson was stationed, and delivered the feed at an angle usually associated with nose-to-kerb parking. Content he got away with it while the ref wasn't looking, Genia repeated the infringement over the rest of the match even when Jackson was standing behind him.

On Saturday night in Sydney, we had the charade of the Waratahs' Nick Phipps and his Blues opposite Jimmy Cowan both trying to make Jaco Peyper aware of less-than-straight scrum feeds, before concluding that neither were going to be pinged and so they might as well enjoy the advantage. These are far from the only examples this year. There were countless other examples across just this weekend gone, and there have been all season.

For the record, Law 20.6 (d) still says:

"The scrum half must throw in the ball straight along the middle line, so that it first touches the ground immediately beyond the width of the nearer prop's shoulders."

Hopefully, this might be policed again sometime soon.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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