Lions' early message: We're sticking around!

    2019-02-17 20:31

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - So who said the heart had been ripped out of the Lions rugby team?

    Fears about the well-being in 2019 of the routine Super Rugby silver-medallists in recent seasons, following the exodus of several central players, seemed understandable.

    But in a lively tussle with old Buenos Aires nemesis the Jaguares to open their tournament account on Saturday, Warren Whiteley's slightly remodelled charges masterminded a frankly fabulous 25-16 triumph.

    It was a huge signal that they have no plans to subside to relative obscurity this year, while also snapping their 0/3 record away to these foes; right at the death they were threatening the Jaguares line for what would even have been a bonus-point cherry on top (the try count ended 3-1 in their favour).

    Not that coach Swys de Bruin and company would have been anywhere near mortified about that: just winning was priceless from what had looked such a hazardous start-out fixture against a fresh Argentinean side not yet hamstrung by the repeated doses of genuinely long-haul travel they are forced into.

    Remember that the Jaguares had earned a 4-0 home sweep of the South African sides last year, and boast a 9/13 win record overall in that regard (a fraction short of 70 percent) since their introduction to Super Rugby in 2016.

    They could yet prove kingmakers in the SA conference, as victories in Buenos Aires will always have to be hard-earned and the Lions have jubilantly cleared that hurdle - the Bulls now try their luck there next weekend, albeit immensely heartened by their 40-3 trampling of the Stormers at Loftus.

    It required a combination of guts, gumption and discipline for the Lions to complete the hoodoo-breaking business, as the Jaguares had a solid foothold on the game for decent periods with gnarly characters like Pumas internationals Tomas Lavanini and Pablo Matera clattering into the physical confrontations spiritedly.

    Indeed, the Lions just began to look up against it when a 5-0 early lead (the first of their open-side "mighty mouse" flank Marnus Schoeman's hat-trick of tries) evaporated at one stage into a 13-5 deficit.

    But with Whiteley a typically calming hand on the tiller – he and Marvin Orie also excelled at lineout time - self-belief only grew as the Lions rattled their hosts into a series of pressure-caused errors and gradually titled the balance quite firmly back their way.

    There was fine, crucial work over the ball by various visiting players at times, including Schoeman, Lionel Mapoe, Malcolm Marx and the all-round revelation who was low-centre-of-gravity tighthead prop Carlu Sadie.

    Snapped up late last year on what are believed to be primarily loan terms from the Stormers, who have two Springboks ahead of him in the No 3 pecking order in Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw, the 21-year-old former SA under-20 powerhouse was also instrumental in ensuring that the Lions earned the massive tonic in what used to be "scrum country" of getting the Jaguares eight emphatically back-pedalling twice or three times at the set-piece.

    One monster effort near the home line was responsible for Schoeman having the luxury of intelligently picking up the ball and switching to a largely unprotected blindside to dot one of the Lions' tries, such was the cushion of strength in front of him.

    But on the other side of the scrum, the so handily fit-again Dylan Smith also revelled at his main trade in the No 1 shirt, once humiliatingly sending direct opponent Santiago Medrano spectacularly skyward on the retreat.

    Both composed flyhalf Elton Jantjies and his halfback ally, Nic Groom, had reason to feel chuffed over their showings, too.

    Well-travelled Groom is perhaps not the most heralded of South African scrumhalves but the man from King William's Town has a big ticker and tidied up some difficult-to-control balls with aplomb.

    The Lions now return to South Africa to face a Newlands fixture against the chastened Stormers, and quite likely to be deemed favourites by many pundits at a venue where they also prevailed (26-23) last season ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Saturday, 23 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Stormers, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Crusaders, Sydney Cricket Ground 10:45
    • Sunwolves v Lions, Singapore National Stadium 12:55
    • Bulls v Chiefs, Loftus Versfeld 15:05
    • Sharks v Rebels, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 17:15
    Sunday, 24 March 2019
    • Reds v Brumbies, Suncorp Stadium 07:05
    Friday, 29 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Crusaders, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Sunwolves, McDonald Jones Stadium 10:45


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