Sickly Lions ... but so-sweet victory
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Warren Whiteley wasn’t wrong: “It was a grind out there.”
The Lions captain readily admitted his team’s unusually imprecise, sometimes impatient and gremlin-laden 13-6 Super Rugby triumph over the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday was anything but an oil painting.
But he wasn’t slow to crack a relieved and even genuinely happy post-match smile, too, perhaps very quickly remembering the bigger, brighter picture - that his men fly home now off a three-match unbeaten tour of Australia.
I wrote before the trek that a full house of wins looked feasible and would have been their target (albeit that trademark modesty from Whiteley, Johan Ackermann and others precluded them from suggesting it publicly themselves) and it is mission accomplished.
Playing the once-iconic Brums in the last tour fixture, when thoughts are inevitably drifting seductively back toward Highveld climes, somehow always looked the most likely booby-trap encounter of the trio, and all that really matters is that they narrowly dodged its perils.
The game was almost eternally in the balance, not least because the hosts bossed both territory and possession for generous periods, although it was arguably a further statement of how far Aussie rugby has tumbled in recent times that they could not winkle a way into the try column despite it.
Instead the lone dot-down came through one of the match’s very isolated solo highlights, open-side flank and established international Sevens star Kwagga Smith cashing in on a botched Brumbies attack to sprint almost the length of the park – probably about as swift a long-range dash as you will see from a forward in rugby union.
Whenever the Lions did have the ball, they frustratingly tended to fritter it away, either by dubious tactical decisions - neither Ross Cronje nor Elton Jantjies had their headiest outings in the pivotal nine and ten jerseys respectively – or daft, petty little mistakes the red-and-whites are more customarily averse to.
In the final analysis, their urgent and desperate scrambling, and the way they eternally work for each other no matter what, proved vital tools in the tense slug-out.
Pack figures like the rangy Whiteley himself, who made a lot of tackles and covered a lot of ground, and “hardebaarde” at close quarters Franco Mostert and Ruan Ackermann were owed no little gratitude by various off-the-boil team-mates for helping engineer this result.
The outcome snapped a menacing habit by the Brumbies of winning matches off a bye weekend - they had apparently claimed seven from seven in that capacity before this trend-ender.
As for the Lions, they have shifted to 46 points from 11 games, putting them level with the unbeaten Crusaders even if the Cantabrians have played one game fewer - the ‘Saders go into battle with the Hurricanes in a Saturday champagne NZ derby drawcard (09:35 SA time).
In overall table terms, all of the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs all still pose enormous threats to the Lions’ drive to end ordinary season atop the entire pile.
But of that quartet, the Lions undoubtedly have the least taxing run-in on paper: they now play three games on the bounce at Ellis Park - Bulls, Kings, Sunwolves - before ending off against the Sharks in Durban.
All of the New Zealand franchises still face a salvo of high-stakes derbies, true strength-versus-strength affairs and thus relative lotteries in outcome terms.
Nevertheless, Whiteley did remind his pitch-side TV interview after Friday’s game, clearly referring to some of the unfancied sides they’re about to square up to: “We’ve seen the smaller unions fighting (recently) … we are not going to take anything for granted.”
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