Why Lions win was so special

    2016-03-06 09:23

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Three subsequent Saturday matches on our own soil failed to dislodge the Lions from runaway mantle of premier South African team of the second Super Rugby 2016 weekend.

    Whilst it was generally a productive round for the SA franchises, featuring a trio of victories from as many starts against overseas opponents plus a bogey-breaking derby win for the ambitions Stormers in Bloemfontein, Warren Whiteley’s heroes were the ones to make us sit bolt upright with a first-time Hamilton triumph over the Chiefs.

    More than the mere upset element to their 36-32 outcome against the 2012 and 2013 champions, the manner in which the Lions achieved it was what made the feat, to borrow the words of SuperSport critic and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett, so “extraordinary”.

    Toppling New Zealand teams in their own dens has become as rare as hen’s teeth by South African outfits anyway, and when they are achieved it usually requires the most taxing and bloody-minded of defensive efforts to clinch the deal.

    A perfect example is the 13-10 pinching of spoils by the very same Lions against the Blues at Albany last year; they had to do so much work on the back foot that they effectively knackered themselves for the follow-up tour fixture against the Crusaders, and were well beaten 34-6 in Christchurch.

    This was so different ... and against a better team, almost certainly, than the Blues were last season.

    Here the Lions entirely matched the All Black-peppered Chiefs for enterprise, creativity and ability to retain the ball for significant periods; statistics proved their toe-to-toe flair and commitment to attack as the hosts were forced into making around 30 more tackles than the Lions did.

    It was four tries all in a breathless, engrossing encounter and a result which was as much a tribute to the coaching strides made by Johan Ackermann and his immediate lieutenants as it was the rich spirit that pumps through the team’s veins.

    They “out-New Zealanded”, if you like, a New Zealand side and it was a breath of fresh air – though let’s not be guilty of going too gaga just yet -- to people praying the South African national side can find new dimensions soon enough in the quest to topple the All Blacks from their solidly entrenched, world-leading pedestal.

    The Lions have now earned an enviable nine points from a possible 10 on their very early-season main overseas trek (including that full house against the Sunwolves in Tokyo), so it almost doesn’t matter what happens in the trip-ending tussle with the defending champion Highlanders this Saturday.

    That said, such is the hunger and play-for-each-other ethic of the Lions troops that we shouldn’t automatically discount another giant-killing in Dunedin, should we?

    Win or lose that one, Whiteley and company are already on an excellent tournament footing when you consider that they return soon for 11 consecutive clashes on SA turf before closing ordinary season with a once-off further overseas game in Buenos Aires.

    Meanwhile, the marketing folk will be able to hype the Newlands derby between coastal adversaries the Stormers and Sharks as a clash of unbeaten teams on Saturday evening, following respective, tough-grind wins against the Cheetahs and Jaguares.

    For a second time in as many weekends, the Stormers produced enough grunt and savvy in the second half to repel the Cheetahs’ challenge 20-10, simultaneously ending a three-game losing Super Rugby hoodoo in the judicial capital.

    Although the home side continued to show that their scrummaging is remarkably on the mend – and then some, at times – under the tutelage of Bloemfontein-born former Bok and WP/Stormers front-ranker Daan Human, the perpetual disruption of their lineout throw by the visitors’ jumpers played a pivotal role in the way the cookie crumbled on the day.

    The Sharks were pipped 2-1 in the try column by the Jaguares in Durban, but won the game where it mattered most – on the electronic scoreboard, which eventually read 19-15 after a tight tussle.

    Whilst the Argentineans again showed marvellous pace and opportunism on the counter-attack, the Sharks did boss almost three-quarters of the real estate and Gary Gold won’t mind too much that they prevailed in a pretty industrial manner.

    His side mostly showed off good physical relish and conditioning, with the young Du Preez loose forward twins again marauding elegantly and powerfully, and Pat Lambie’s plucky little stand-in at flyhalf, Joe Pietersen, a model of composure and aided by Andre Esterhuizen’s explosiveness alongside him at inside centre.

    “He’s always been a good footballer,” reminded Naas Botha in the SuperSport studio as he concurred about Pietersen’s performance, which included precious reliability off the kicking tee.

    The Bulls are on the bounce-back as well, after their relative goring in Cape Town, seeing off the Rebels with greater ease on the score-line (45-25) than some had expected at Loftus, although they had worrying periods of gross ineptitude to go with some handsome try-scoring activity when on the front foot in a wild and woolly affair ...

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):

    Friday: Blues v Hurricanes, 08:35; Force v Brumbies, 13:05. Saturday: Highlanders v Lions, 08:35; Rebels v Reds, 10:45; Sunwolves v Cheetahs, 12:55; Kings v Chiefs, 15:05; Stormers v Sharks, 17:15. Byes: Bulls, Crusaders, Jaguares, Waratahs.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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