Lions’ message: We’re NOT on the wane!

    2018-02-17 22:28

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Phew … job done.

    Those are likely to have been the dominant sentiments of Lions coach Swys de Bruin and his Stormers counterpart Robbie Fleck after the franchises got their Super Rugby 2018 campaigns off to winning starts on Saturday.

    Far from flawless in either the Ellis Park or Newlands triumphs, both teams were pushed hard - by the Sharks and Jaguares respectively - in round one and would not have shed too many tears about earning “standard” victories rather than ones with bonus points.

    The Lions, tournament runners-up for each of the last two seasons, were camped on their own line when the final whistle sounded on a compelling derby (26-19), the Sharks having the well-earned consolation of a losing log point for ending within seven points.

    If anything in Cape Town, where a disappointing first-day crowd of 18 000 would have sent a shiver down the spines of officials at crisis-plagued WP Rugby, the 28-20 outcome slightly flattered the Stormers, who had to repel a fierce second-half onslaught from the Argentineans.

    Certainly the better game - no surprise considering the later start on the Highveld and the gruelling afternoon heat further south? - was the all-SA affair, leaving many observers, no doubt, steadfast in their belief that the Lions and Sharks may very well carry our flag the most spiritedly in the competition this year.

    Yes, the men from Durban are nought from one, but will hardly be discouraged at this infant stage after going toe to toe with Warren Whiteley’s outfit, and have a fortnight now to sharpen up for the visit to the unenviable KwaZulu-Natal summer humidity of the Waratahs as they are the only side on a bye next weekend.

    They will also be mindful that if they could run the Lions so close in the Big Smoke, there is every reason to feel hopeful they can level things up in the home return fixture in late June.

    Although there were other, pleasing aspects to Saturday’s bruising but high-tempo tussle, it basically boiled down, in the final analysis, to the clear superiority of the Lions scrum being enough to trump the dominance of the Sharks’ lineout.

    The hosts made a massive statement, even while some spectators were probably still taking their seats, with an immediate, demon scrum, burly Lions loosehead prop Jacques van Rooyen (on his 50th appearance) crumpling backwards poor Thomas du Toit, who also prefers that berth but is having to make a fist of filling the Coenie Oosthuizen void at tighthead instead.

    Although the visitors clawed back a semblance of stability in that area at times afterwards, the overall Lions mastery of that set-piece was nevertheless a key influencer in the final outcome.

    But with towering captain Ruan Botha to the fore as a wrecker/interceptor of the Lions’ plans on their own throw, the lineouts were monopolised by the Sharks to ensure they kept a pretty firm foothold on the contest themselves.

    Both teams also left a few points out there, with flyhalves Robert du Preez (otherwise a constructive menace with his strong, flat running) and Elton Jantjies botching important place-kicks.

    Perhaps the best summary of the match is to venture that the Lions did enough to serve notice that they intend being at the races right to the end again in 2018, despite some understandable suggestions that Johan Ackermann and others moving away from the franchise might see a noticeable downturn.

    Having Whiteley back at both their spiritual and game-plan coalface made a big difference - the Bok captain is still short of a gallop but produced clever touches and showed customary composure and good judgement - and De Bruin and his lieutenants in the booth would have been chuffed by the emergence of some Young Turks as well.

    It was tough having to start the season without seasoned wings Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck, but there was crackle and pop in abundance from rookie replacements Aphiwe Dyantyi (especially) and Sylvian Mahuza.

    Both did more than enough - Dyantyi, 23, notched an early candidate for a tries-of-the-season package - to suggest that the jerseys are in sound hands until the more seasoned characters return to contention.

    One concern for the gallant, ceaselessly grafting losing side was the surrender to injury during the contest of No 8 Dan du Preez (his shoulder or upper arm looked in some discomfort) and scrumhalf Cameron Wright.

    Du Preez’s twin brother Jean-Luc is due back some time in March, so that is a reasonable compensating thought, but if Wright has more than a niggle, it will be a worry: the Sharks are already low on No 9s with Louis Schreuder on the crocked list.

    Speaking of setbacks, Stormers mastermind Fleck has a real issue with experienced tight forwards - the lack thereof, right now - as the so-so triumph over the Jaguares saw further unsettling developments in that area.

    As the Stormers prepare to set off on their three-match Australasian tour, they were already in a position, pre-Jaguares, where Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe and Scarra Ntubeni couldn’t begin the campaign, and then first-choice hooker Bongi Mbonambi was a Friday pull-out for illness reasons.

    Fast-emerging Bok tighthead Wilco Louw was already walking a tightrope after a hip problem, and the fact that he did not emerge for the second half at Newlands - novice Carlu Sadie fared well enough on debut - seemed to suggest all is not hunky-dory with him, either.

    As things stand, and primarily because of the ongoing absence of several “hardebaarde”, the Stormers look as though they might do well to earn even one victory abroad, from dates with (in order) the Waratahs, Crusaders and Highlanders ...

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday, February 23

    Highlanders v Blues - 08:35

    Rebels v Reds - 10:45

    Saturday, February 24

    Sunwolves v Brumbies - 06:15

    Crusaders v Chiefs - 08:35

    Waratahs v Stormers - 10:45

    Lions v Jaguares - 15:05

    Bulls v Hurricanes - 17:15

    Bye: Sharks

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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