Rob Houwing

Lions shed ‘poor cousin’ tag

2014-08-11 08:00
Sport24 Chief Writer Rob Houwing

Cape Town – Three times in a row ... that is how often the Golden Lions have earned bragging rights over “bigger” Highveld neighbours the Blue Bulls in Currie Cup rugby, and two of them have been proper thrashings.

Saturday’s 41-13 triumph at Ellis Park by Warren Whiteley’s side was the most powerful statement of intent across the four first-round matches in the 2014 premier domestic competition.

While last year’s finalists, the trophy-earning Sharks and runners-up Western Province, both opened their accounts with away wins, the Lions - admittedly benefitting from no current call-ups to the Springbok squad - carried on where they left off in Super Rugby by earning a deserved bonus-point victory over the anaemic Bulls.

Johan Ackermann’s unheralded but admirably hungry charges signed off the SANZAR competition this year in some style by earning three successive wins, and appear to have transferred that momentum straight into the Currie Cup.

Right from the outset, they looked more focused, imaginative and fluid than the frankly predictable Bulls, and if fans of the Loftus-based side thought things could hardly get worse than the halftime situation, when the Lions led by 20 points, they were wrong as the margin only swelled before the final whistle brought an end to the visitors’ discomfort.

There is a case for saying that the all-SA competition has lost much of its gravitas of a few years back, given that senior Springboks play an increasingly minimal part in it, so it can give certain provinces a false sense of their “strength”.

Then again, one of the Lions’ scalps in their afore-mentioned sequence of late-campaign Super Rugby triumphs was that of the very Bulls - a massively damaging 32-21 reverse in Johannesburg for the three-time champions that really scuppered any lingering playoffs aspirations.

On that occasion, the Bulls did have use of several of their Boks, including stalwart Loftus figures like Flip van der Merwe (captain on the night as Victor Matfield was controversially rested), Francois Hougaard and Jan Serfontein.

And even if the Currie Cup these days brings smaller unions more competitively into the frame as their ranks aren’t plundered nearly as much for international needs, it is nevertheless a galling fact for the Pretoria faithful to digest that the Lions have now earned a hat-trick of victories against the Blue Bulls at that level.

Last season, the Lions won 35-26 in the corresponding game in the Big Smoke, and the earlier result was even more of a turn-up for the books: the Bulls were thrashed 62-23 at supposed Fortress Loftus.

Die-hard Bulls enthusiasts are increasingly entitled to question why a giant franchise that has so often prided itself on its development structures and shrewd recruitment of youthful talent from around the country is being shown up domestically by a neighbouring outfit that has had its major share of boardroom strife and financial woe.

While it may be true that at fullest possible, Super Rugby-level strength the Bulls would probably still be tipped to see off the Lions more often than not, the gap is closing quite dramatically as the Lions bring through young, often hitherto unheard-of men with enormous pride in the jersey and an underdog spirit of no small magnitude.

Not for the first time in recent cross-Jukskei clashes, the Lions dominated the scrums and breakdown area as the Bulls only demonstrated that they are not learning properly from already highlighted deficiencies in those departments.

Even when it became obvious that the Bulls desperately needed to abandon their kick-heavy, structure-based game at the beginning of the final quarter, as they required at least three tries to hit an unlikely lead, they just seemed unable to make the mental switch and exhibit a “Plan B” at a time of need.

This was hardly the start the Bulls sought to a Currie Cup they are under pressure to improve in this season, given that in 2013 they ended fifth and out of the semi-finals berths.

Yes, Bulls supporters can still boast that since the mid-1990s, when the rugby landscape worldwide changed so much with the advent of professionalism, they have earned infinitely more silverware than the Lions have, including coveted Super Rugby titles in all of 2007, 2009 and 2010.

But a retort from Johannesburg might well be that their trophy cabinet has been less lean since, given that the Lions won the Currie Cup in 2011 and the Bulls haven’t claimed that honour since two years earlier than that.

Already, the Lions look the better-equipped of the Highveld pair to bag it again in 2014, considering the comprehensive nature of this first-round derby win.

The Blue Bulls can’t feel too confident of striking back fast, either, as they face another tough away hurdle in the shape of WP at Newlands on Saturday.

Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first):

Friday, August 15

Sharks v Pumas, 19:10

Saturday, August 16

Western Province v Blue Bulls - 14:00
Golden Lions v Eastern Province Kings - 14:30
Free State Cheetahs v Griquas - 15:00

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    warren whiteley  |  rugby

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