Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Falling the wrong side of fine margins … those are more of a problem to the Lions at present, by my book, than any suggestion they are or will not be the force of 2016 or 2017 in Super Rugby this year.
I could almost hear the sound of collective knees jerking as the Johannesburg franchise “slumped” in the minds of many … er, to a 40-38 victory over the Sunwolves at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday.
That’s right, perhaps we do need to remind ourselves that, despite the emotional outcry over their performance – don’t get me wrong, warranted in many respects – a slightly makeshift-looking Lions combo didn’t actually lose; they still scraped over the line against the unusually fired-up, rank underdogs.
As for fine margins: bear in mind also that, but for a brain-burp in decision-making by fullback Andries Coetzee late in the match, when he put through an ill-fated in-field grubber on attack with a promising line of players outside him, the hosts might feasibly even have banked the barely-deserved full house for securing the three-try-supremacy bonus point into the bargain.
Had they scored from that raid, the Lions would have moved into either a 45-31 or 47-31 lead, and the try situation would have been 7-4 in their favour – ensuring the useful extra log point if it had stayed that way.
Instead the promising chance was butchered and, as it turned out, the Sunwolves cashed in on some further Lions looseness right at the death to register a fifth try of their own and thus only 6-5 inferiority in try terms.
But remember additionally that the “fine line” phenomenon also came home to roost – in an even more costly way – in the Lions’ outing against the Blues at the same venue just a week earlier.
That was a game the Highvelders may still be scratching their heads about, in terms of how they actually managed to fritter it away in a 38-35 reverse after the siren.
On that thrill-a-minute occasion, the Lions led by a hugely commanding 28-10 at one stage, and then when the Blues had commendably narrowed the gap to 35-31 in the 77th minute, only a very narrow failure by Aphiwe Dyantyi to ground a bobbling ball properly over the try-line prevented them from putting the contest to bed again (at what would have been 42-31 or 40-31 – a safe two scores ahead).
It is history now that the Blues instead stole the game with the dramatic last move at the other end of the park.
So with a better slice of fortune, the Lions might well be sitting on a five-from-five record, rather than sporting one hiccup at virtually the one-third mark of their ordinary-season roster (the Highlanders are the only unbeaten team left in the competition, albeit having only played three times so far).
Shouldn’t the current crop of Lions doubters – at least those evident on the fickle playground of social media – also make more allowance for the fact that, against the Sunwolves, coach Swys de Bruin deliberately tampered with every combination in the pack, and a few behind the scrum too?
It was all done with a view to fielding, with some key rested individuals back in the mix, what will almost certainly be as full-strength a Lions XV as possible against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires this Saturday (23:40 SA time).
I lauded De Bruin on Sport24 last week for his decision to “pull” gnarly front-five specimens like Jacques van Rooyen, Ruan Dreyer and Andries Ferreira from the Sunwolves match, despite the risk involved, and maybe the Sunwolves were especially motivated for the very reason that they felt their hosts weren’t showing them enough respect on pre-match paper.
Yet the fact remains that the temporarily remodelled Lions cleared the hurdle, even as they looked horribly out of sync for much of the match and were infuriatingly naïve tactically for too long, as well.
They kept going at a helter-skelter, high-risk rate, rather than occasionally taking the tempo out of the contest and using their still-decent pack or Elton Jantjies’ educated boot to make slower, tighter gains and sap the strength from the more lightweight opposition eight in the thin Jo’burg air.
But it was a valuable lesson, and certainly a reminder that the Lions are quite sorely missing the calming presence and game-managing intelligence brought by injured skipper Warren Whiteley (and normal understudy Jaco Kriel, for that matter).
For all the shock and horror about how close the Sunwolves were allowed to come, it is worth remembering that they have considerably troubled several South African teams before, even if more customarily in Tokyo or Singapore.
A game that springs so rapidly to mind is the Japanese outfit’s 2016 clash with a similarly diluted Stormers side, who were desperately lucky to snatch a last-gasp 17-17 stalemate in the tropical city-state, courtesy of a brute-strength barrelling over the line by tighthead prop Vincent Koch.
“Shocking … sleepwalking … a serious case of overconfidence by the Stormers,” said SuperSport pundit Nick Mallett after that game.
The Stormers knew after that fortuitous encounter, nevertheless, that they were better than that.
Ditto, I strongly suspect, the Lions of 2018.
Don’t write off a constructive “reaction” from them, back at stronger staffing, in South America this week.
I’m prepared to take a brazenly early wager they’ll win …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing