Eugene Eloff’s young Lions team really came of age at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein as they downed the Cheetahs by the narrowest of margins, 23 points to 22. The home side outscored the visitors by three tries to two, but poor discipline cost them dearly in the second half.
The Cheetahs machine was an awesome sight to behold in the first half. Eddie Fredericks was over for the opening try within 2 minutes and such was their ascendancy that one would have been forgiven for thinking that Jacques-Louis Potgieter’s erratic goal-kicking wouldn’t come back to bite them in the end. The Lions fought back bravely to take a 10-5 lead, with the impressive Franco van der Merwe scoring a beautiful try, but the home side soon rested control and pulled away through further tries to Duanne Vermeulen and Barend Pieterse. 22-13 at the break and the home fans would have felt that they had a bonus point victory all but sown up.
And then a funny thing happened. Just at the same time as the Cheetahs started to go to sleep, the Lions brought on fresh legs and decided to have a real go. Stormers and Springbok reject Joe van Niekerk for once lived up to his five-star billing and made a huge impact, crossing the advantage line seemingly at will. Flyhalf Earl Rose also added a different dimension to the staid Louis Strydom and immediately started to get the Lions backline going in space.
As spectacular as the Lions revival was, the Cheetahs’ subsequent implosion was no less remarkable. The team that had looked in control right from the start suddenly started to make basic errors, drop passes, put kicks out on the full, take the wrong options. Flyhalf Potgieter went from composed in the first stanza to decidedly shaky in the second. As their game started to fall apart, so did the hosts’ discipline and hooker Adriaan Strauss spent ten minutes in the cooler for a dangerous tackle just when the Cheetahs could least afford his absence. The Lions struck through a Doppies le Grange try and suddenly the lead was cut to only two points.
A frenetic last ten minutes saw the Lions throwing wave after wave of attack at the Cheetahs and although the Bloem boys’ defence held, they could not get their hands on the ball. A further incident of petulance from scrumhalf Noel Oelshig gifted Rose a penalty shot, which he gladly took to give the Lions a single point lead. They never looked back and a game that had looked sure to yield five points at half time, suddenly left them with a single point as scant consolation for the dominance they had shown in the first half.
Some glaring signs of a significant lack of depth amongst the backs, as we predicted. Don’t expect them to go too far in this competition unless they unearth a real gem or two from somewhere (are those Ebehrson boys ready for Super rugby?) As for the Lions, the only way is up. Their hands just seem to be a cut above the other SA teams at this stage of the season and if Rose can continue to show the sort of form he did last night, don’t be too surprised to see him as a regular starting option at flyhalf.
Cheetahs (22): Tries by Fredericks, Vermeulen and Pieterse. Two conversions and a penalty by Potgieter.
Lions (23): Tries by van der Merwe and le Grange. A conversion and two penalties by Strydom. Earl Rose added a further penalty and a conversion.