Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - A far from ideal beginning to their safari, albeit with an hour or so of flickering promise to boast.
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The Lions, regular title-chasers in Super Rugby up to a couple of years ago, began their four-match tour of Australasia in the worst possible fashion with defeat to the previously winless and rock-bottom Waratahs at Parramatta on Friday.
Not only that, but concession of a further try to the hosts three minutes from the end of normal time deprived them even of the consolation of a losing bonus point - while the ‘Tahs earned a full house in the 29-17 outcome from a loose, almost basketball-like encounter.
It left a nasty suspicion that the Lions, now one from four in 2020, will find the going routinely tough for the remainder of the trek.
Next up will be the Rebels in Melbourne on Saturday week, and Dave Wessels’s charges have just come off a really heartening, upset victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Failure to get back in the win column there, and the Jo’burgers will be difficult to back even by their more ardent fans when they shift to New Zealand for two further tussles (Blues, Highlanders).
“We can only get better next week … we need to take ownership better with ball in hand … (it’s) a great bunch of boys, willing to learn,” was the still reasonably bullish verdict afterwards of Lions skipper Elton Jantjies.
The flyhalf was one the better visiting performers in the setback, with some silky touches both out of hand and from his feet; there was less consistency outside of his channel, though, as Lions back-liners were sometimes too easily bundled into touch or were guilty of probing blind alleys.
Almost indisputably, the worst damage was done to the Lions in the opening quarter: it was almost a case of one-foot-on-the-plane-syndrome in reverse, as they looked sluggish and disjointed defensively before finding better structural integrity as the game developed.
But by then they were playing serious, eventually insurmountable catch-up: they had leaked three tries in that awkward start and 3-19 is a difficult deficit to make up.
The period included a costly yellow card for a hot-tempered indiscretion by aggressive young front lock Ruben Schoeman, which is also a bad way to set a tone for an overseas tour.
Although the general, attacking spirit of both outfits could not really be questioned, the game left the distinct impression that it was one between teams who will stay in the nether regions of this year’s competition - there was a “Hail Mary” feeling to some of the passing and option-taking on an evening where conditions were pretty decent for a spectacle.
Although their own fetcher Marnus Schoeman put in a willing shift - including dotting both their tries - the Lions were too frequently outsmarted on the deck, where Wallaby stalwart Michael Hooper (also with a high tackle count) was characteristically prominent, and the turnover department was bossed by the ‘Tahs.
Kurtley Beale also showed off his known expertise from the last line of defence, sometimes pulling vital strings in closer areas than that, and the television commentators reminded that he had made his debut in Super Rugby against the same opponents as far back as 2007.
This was a sobering turnaround for a Lions side who had rousingly won their last away date against the Waratahs 29-0 in 2018.
But perhaps it was also not entirely unexpected, as coach Ivan van Rooyen is working with such a rejigged, considerably less experienced group of players this year.
A glance at the starting line-up from that memorable outcome two years back indicates just how many players have moved elsewhere subsequently from the Big Smoke: Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Madosh Tambwe, Franco Mostert, Kwagga Smith, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx (at least only for this season) and Jacques van Rooyen.
That is two-thirds, and more, of a once pretty formidable team.
A revisit to those days seems some way off ...
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