JOHANNESBURG – On a chilly Highveld night, the Lions on Wednesday managed to warm the cockles of their supporters' hearts by beating the Western Province 38-32.
It was a confident, competent victory – well, at least for 70 minutes – before it nearly went horribly wrong for the Joburg outfit.
Before the 67th minute, the Lions were in full control of the second round Currie Cup encounter at Emirates Airline Park, comfortably leading the WP 38-10. Up until that point, they had scrummed well, their maul was excellent, their defensive efforts moreso, and they had scored six tries. Two yellow cards followed in quick succession for the home team then – first Jaco Visagie was given his marching orders, followed one minute later by Ruben Schoeman.
With the Lions down to 13 players, the WP decided to take advantage of their numerical superiority, and play some rugby. They came desperately close to overturning a 28-point deficit to claim an unlikely victory.
Nevertheless, in those closing moments, an exhausted Lions team held on to deny an equally exhausted WP side, both teams showing grit and character as the match came to an exciting conclusion.
“I can sit here and say that a couple of years went by,” coach Ivan van Rooyen nervously chuckled while reliving those last 10 minutes, “It felt like forever.
“I think our decision making and execution wasn't good enough,” Van Rooyen continued, “even with the 13 guys. We gave them ball to run at us, which wasn't good enough. There is a lot to learn that we can take out of there: Either you have to go deep and pin them there, or if you are going to kick, you have to do a contestable.
“I think our kick-offs were too deep, the box-kick from Krappie (Morne van den Berg) was too deep, and that put us under pressure. If you are only 13 on the field, and you've got two guys covering back-field, that is 11 in the front-line, probably a tackler or two, that leaves you with eight guys in the front-line.
“So ruck-discipline, ruck-decisions … we can't lose numbers at rucks, so that is big learning for us there. Obviously, I am chuffed with the result and really proud of the guys.”
WP coach John Dobson, meanwhile, was also proud of his team's temperament in those last 10 minutes, even though he was less than pleased with what had preceded it.
Said Dobson: “I knew we had character but at 38-10, I did think that it was gone.
“Those 10 minutes where we gave away 21 points through the yellow card just before half-time; those two tries, including the intercept, should have buried us.
“I knew we would make some sort of comeback, but we even made hard work of that when we got all those attacking opportunities on the line, we butchered them and ended up with a penalty against us for sealing when Abner (van Reenen) took a quick tap and go.
— Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) June 24, 2021
“We got ourselves into a real hole, we were really poor.”
The Lions will now shift their focus wholly on preparing for the British and Irish Lions, whom they play next week Saturday in the opening fixture of the tour. The Joburg side will enter their bio-bubble on Monday after a barrage of tests and Covid-19 protocols are completed on their players in the coming days.
Victory on Wednesday night was, therefore, of utmost importance for the Joburgers, and they will hope it will give them an extra edge of confidence as they build towards the Lions.
The WP, meanwhile, next face the Shark in a mid-week encounter next week at Newlands.