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Lions have more than a point to prove

If there is one thing I’ve been surprised at this week – although I probably shouldn’t have been – it is the psychological warfare the Kiwis have been engaging in ahead of the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs.

It is subtle, but it is there, made to make every South African doubt the quality of our rugby, and they do it darn well.

It started this week with a tweet from an old friend – Kiwi commentator and former Tongan international Willie Lose – who bet me a beer via the social network that the Emirates Lions wouldn’t be able to go all the way.

Knowing how these things sometimes come back to haunt you, I answered carefully, and gladly accepted the bet without taking the bait too easily.

Then came an article in the New Zealand Herald, that fiercely non-partisan newspaper (For those of you who know the Tui Lager adverts in New Zealand, my thoughts on this line were “yeah right”) that has already said it would be a “travesty” for the Lions to win Super Rugby because of the format, and the same paper which painted British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland as a clown recently.

Their esteemed editorial staff decided to rank the quarterfinalists from eight to one, in the order they felt each had a chance of winning Super Rugby. And guess what, the Lions were ranked third, Stormers sixth and Sharks eighth out of the eight teams, with the Kiwis deciding that the Hurricanes and Highlanders are the two teams that will contest the final.

Then came a call on Wednesday night from a New Zealand Radio station Radiosport, who wanted to know my view on the fact that the Kiwis have already written the Lions off and, according to the host, “were finding it hard to see that the Lions have a chance to win Super Rugby.” It all borders a bit on the bizarre.

Clearly the same country that wrote Gatland’s British and Irish Lions off has forgotten just how disparaging they were to the Northern Hemisphere team, and how they ate humble pie in a drawn series against the Lions.

Sure, there was SBW’s red card and a test won against 14, and we will hear about it until the cows come home (there are a lot of cows in Kiwiland), but the record books reflect the result and will reflect that the team that had no hope, drew a test series and knocked the invincibility tag of the mighty All Blacks through old fashioned rugby.

Now I’ve got my own concerns about the Johannesburg franchise as well, especially as the format of the competition hasn’t allowed them to face any New Zealand opposition during the league phase, and there will be a serious ramping up of intensity if and when they do get to the semis.

This was also the one point that John Mitchell shared this week with myself and a few colleagues. He attended the Crusaders-Hurricanes game while in New Zealand and was surprised by the intensity and pace of the game. It is certainly something that will make a massive difference when a South African side meets a team from the Land of the Long White Cloud.

But the Lions remain South Africa’s best bet in the competition and there are a number of things the New Zealanders tend to forget in their assessment of the final stages of the competition.

For one, South African rugby is in a much better state than it was a year ago, and that means a number of the key players at the Lions are a year older, a year wiser and have encountered the toughest conditions the competition will test them with.

Last year, when they faced New Zealand opposition, they made it all the way to the final, where rain and wind and a good rush defence stunted their natural playing flow and lost them the title. But they made it to the final when playing New Zealand opposition, and I’d hazard to guess that as a team they are better man for man now than they were a year ago.

It isn’t the Lions’ fault they didn’t play New Zealand teams and, as Clive Woodward loved to point out to us years ago, you can only play what’s in front of you.

Saying that, the Lions have kept up their promise to play at pace, have continued with the same mind-set and brand of rugby that has won them hearts and minds, and swept away almost all that have come before them.

And like the sports psychologists love pointing out – just like losing, winning is a habit and it’s a damn powerful one at that.

The most important moment of their game against the Sharks last weekend reaffirmed my view – when they continued to attack after the halftime hooter had sounded at King’s Park. Most teams would have kicked out and headed towards the sheds, but the Lions continued to attack, and were rewarded with a try. That underlined the confidence this team have, and the will to score points.

And the New Zealanders are forgetting the most important thing of all – the Lions are at home, at altitude and there is a huge difference to arriving in South Africa for a two-week tour than for a one-off game where you only find out your opposition on a Sunday when you board a 15-hour flight.

The competition has proved time and again that home ground advantage is an extra 10 points at this stage of the game, and that will be massive for a team at home.

That isn’t saying the Lions don’t have challenges, and Johan Ackermann was the first to admit that their intensity needs to increase if they are to achieve their dream. Ackers wasn’t at all happy with his team’s win at King’s Park and knows what it will take to go all the way to the final.

The Lions, of course, need to beat the Sharks this weekend first to have that right to go a step further and it won’t be an easy match. But if they do overcome the Durbanites, they will face Kiwi opposition for the rest of the tournament and will need to cope with the intensity.

And given the extra emotional push of Ackermann’s departure, motivation won’t be a problem for the Johannesburg team, as long as they harness it correctly.

Either way I wouldn’t be as smug if I was sitting in New Zealand right now. Try and convince yourself all you want about the Lions, but they have a distinct advantage of sitting at home for the rest of the tournament.

And if the British and Irish Lions tour should have taught them anything, it is that you shouldn’t count your chickens too early…

The Lions have a way to go, but a victory in the tournament for them will mean more than fulfilling a dream, it would mean another blow to New Zealand invincibility.

And that is more than enough motivation to support them.

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