When rugby fans think about the running rugby the Lions and Stormers play, they immediately believe it’s because of better skill levels.
But that’s only half of the picture.
When the Stormers brilliantly beat the Chiefs last weekend, they did so with superb defence and excellent conditioning in the last 10 minutes.
Johan Ackermann’s Lions have made a good start to their campaign by scoring crucial tries in the dying moments of matches.
In fact, they’ve scored the most tries in the last 20 minutes of games this season.
There’s a common theme here: the Stormers and Lions have focused on fitness and conditioning.
And that’s actually what makes New Zealand better than the rest – their teams play the full 80 minutes.
“The last 20 minutes of Saturday’s game is going to be important,” said Ackermann, whose Lions travel to Newlands this weekend.
“This attitude of prioritising conditioning emerged from last year’s coaching indaba. (Bok coach) Allister Coetzee told us that he felt local players in general could be more fitter. All the coaches made a point of focusing on that in the pre-season. The Stormers have done it better than most.
“You could see they were in the fight right to the last minute. It’s good for SA rugby.”
Robbie Fleck, the Stormers coach, is aware his side needs to continue that trend.
“Many felt we upped the tempo last week to hang on for the win,” he said.
“We got there through our conditioning. Nothing has changed this week. The Lions play like the Chiefs. If we’re going to win again, we need to keep the intensity.”
Yet the former Springbok centre made a crucial point when he stated the Lions “managed to keep their intensity week in and week out against the New Zealand sides last year”.
Consistent conditioning like the Lions and New Zealand’s doesn’t happen overnight.
“I’m no expert on the matter but it’s very much part of a team’s culture,” said Lions captain Warren Whiteley.
“We followed a very strict programme that balanced contact sessions and recovery. It really is a process. It took us the best part of two years to get our conditioning up to scratch.”
Ackermann also points out that staying sharp in the latter stages of games is about the players at one’s disposal.
“If we still had someone like Julian Redelinghuys, Howard Mnisi and Warwick Tecklenburg available, we could pick a team where all 23 players are almost as experienced and conditioned as the rest,” he said.
“You can try and condition your players as best as you want but your replacements are really important too. They are the guys that need to sometimes spark in the last 20 minutes.
“And that’s where the Stormers do well. If Eben Etzebeth goes off, for example, a guy like JD Schickerling comes on and is just as conditioned as him. You can’t expect to keep up the tempo if you take off Jaco Kriel and replace him with a 18-year-old rookie who’s just starting out. Depth is massively important.”
Stormers skipper Siya Kolisi agrees.
“It’s conditioning that’s going to determine who wins this game. Workrate helped us win last week and that needs to remain high.”