Western Force made it two out of three on their South African tour by posting a tense but turgid 18-16 victory over the Lions at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Friday evening.
Leading 16-15 at the break, the home side might have seen the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that light must have blinded them because the Force were the only side to make a contribution to the scoreboard in the second half to run out winners by a mere two points.
Yes, you read correctly. Three points in 40 minutes made for one of the poorest displays of professional rugby the Super 14 has seen this year.
It was a scrappy game that neither side will look back on with pride. Both teams were incapable of maintaining possession for any decent period of time, and for all their hard work, the Lions will need to work even harder if they expect to win again this season.
Before the kick-off, Lions coach Eugene Eloff said his team needed to be more “clinical”. He couldn’t have been more right and he probably said the same thing of both teams after the final whistle.
Far too many poor passes made for a stop-start affair. The Force did manage to show their hosts just how to be ‘clinical’ with two well-worked tries in the first half but unfortunately the entertainment stopped there.
The Lions must have been dizzy by the time they left the field, and perhaps a trip to a ‘clinic’ is needed. A rush of blood to the head every time they received the ball unexpectedly almost always resulted in the ball finding the grass instead of a team-mate.
They dropped the ball a full 14 times, and it seemed they sent one stay pass for each spectators in the stadium. Winger Rayno Benjamin made five handling errors in the first half an hour alone.
Maybe the light drizzle an hour of two before the start can take some of them blame – but not much.
The composure that was missing in last week’s defeat to the Blues was once again sadly lacking form the locals’ arsenal. They managed to show some real composure for a whole ten minutes at the start and even managed to open the scoring.
The Lions scrummaged well and Heinke van der Merwe showing why he is so highly rated. A solid scrum set a steady platform for them to earn a penalty when Force flank Matt Hodgson very impolitely didn’t come through the gate. Louis Strydom did the necessaries.
The Force came right back – showing composure, clinical finishing and making their passes stick by scoring the first try.
From the middle of the field centre Scott Daruda drew two defenders, timed a great skip-pass perfectly to full-back Cameron Shepherd who was flying down the touch line and waltzed over the line unimpeded.
It was terribly poor defence from the Lions, and Benjamin was nowhere to be seen to defend his touch-line.
If it was a very scrappy game, the Lions, to their credit were ready to scrap for the ball. The Jo’burg side did very well to get bodies aplenty to the break-down area and slow the Force down.
The Australians, as expected, seemed far more threatening with ball in hand. The teams exchanged penalties and with the score at 10-6 to the visitors, Matt Giteau showed why he is rated one of the best fly-halves in world rugby.
The Wallaby made a mockery of the Lions defence and carved through the line before off-loading to number eight Tamaiti Horua. Lions fans might have thought the pass was a little forward, but the try counted five points all the same.
It was an example of how the home side once again missed far too many tackles. They missed over 20, which maybe isn’t so bad considering that they made close to 115!
Before the half was over however the team in red scored a try of their own.
Centre Doppies La Grange charged down a Scott Daruda clearance, pulled an hamstring in the process of picking up the ball, but managed to whip a pass out to Jaco van Schalkwyk who stepped inside two Force defenders to finish in style.
Stydom secured two more points and the home side went ahead. At half-time the Lions would have felt that they were worth their lead purely thanks to their hard work.
The second half started out with a bang, but faded quickly.
The Force were all over the Lions until scrum-half Jano Vermaak found a way through a myriad of players at the end of a dodgy Force line-out and raced away to send the crowd delirious with a wonder dive behind the posts.
All for naught.
The referee reckoned there had been a knock-on. The replay showed otherwise and the Force can count themselves lucky.
Five minutes later Shepherd kicked a long-range penalty which, as it turned out, would seal the Lion’s fate.
The Force will travel back to Australia thinking very hard about how they should be cashing in on their opportunities. They had nearly all of the possession for the second 40 minutes and should have converted it into more points.
A bonus point for losing by less than seven points will do little to alleviate the hurt of another home loss for the Lions.
Man of the Match: Nathan Sharpe saved the Force in the line-outs and carried the ball with authority. Joe van Niekerk got involved all over the field. Louis Ludik kicked well and joined the line with purpose and effect. But Matt Giteau was superb as usual – he kicked well, and tackled like a demon.
Moment of the Match: There weren’t too many exciting moments, Matt Giteau created a quality try for Tamaiti Horua.
Villain of the Match: Not much to report. A good punch-up might have actually added some life to the affair!
Try: Van Schalkwyk
Pens: Strydom 3
For Western Force:
Tries: Shepherd, Horua
Pens: Giteau, Shephard
Lions: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Dusty Noble, 13 Jaco van Schalkwyk, 12 Doppies la Grange, 11 Rayno Benjamin, 10 Louis Strydom, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Joe van Niekerk, 7 Ernst Joubert (c), 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Willem Stoltz, 4 Gerhard Mostert, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Willie Wepener, 1 Heinke van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Gert Andries van der Merwe, 18 Franco van der Merwe, 19 Willem Alberts, 20 Chris Jonck, 21 Earl Rose, 22 Janie Boschoff.
Western Force:15 Cameron Shepherd, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Scott Daruda, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Matt Giteau , 9 James Stannard, 8 Tamaiti Horua, 7 Matt Hodgson, 6 Scott Fava, 5 Nathan Sharpe (c), 4 Tom Hockings, 3 Troy Takiari, 2 Luke Holmes, 1 Gareth Hardy.
Replacements: 16 Tai McIsaac, 17 AJ Whalley, 18 Sam Wykes, 19 Richard Brown, 20 David Pocock, 21 Lachlan MacKay, 22 Josh Tatupu.
Referee: Kelvin Deaker (New Zealand)
Touch judges: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Phillip Bosch (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
Assessor: Arrie Schoonwinkel (South Africa)