The Xerox Lions closed the gap on the Absa Currie Cup frontrunners with a thrilling 30-27 (halftime 20-13) victory over the Vodacom Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night.
Ken Borland writes for Superrugby that the Bulls’ Currie Cup campaign collided with an irresistable force on Friday night as a superb Lions display – coupled with wins for Free State and the Natal Sharks – knocked them from first to fourth on the log. The Lions now lie third, just two points behind the log-leading Sharks.
The Lions took control of a scintillating encounter with two tries shortly after half time to take a 30-13 lead and, although the Bulls hit back manfully, the visitors showed a fierce desire to win in holding on to their lead in the closing stages.
Under-rated hooker Willie Wepener put on a top-class display, excelling in all facets of the game as he scored twice himself and featured prominently in another try.
Flyhalf Earl Rose kicked two early penalties to give the Lions a 6-3 lead, although the youngster’s use of his boot in open play was often inappropriate.
A particularly dumb chip just outside his own 22 gifted the Bulls the ball and led to the opening try in the 17th minute – an exciting effort as flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked the ball to the right wing and fullback Zane Kirchner scored as he outjumped Rayno Benjamin.
But the Lions followed up ten minutes later with an even more spectacular try. After pulling the Bulls’ defence left then right, Wepener was eventually on the end of a move in which most of the team handled.
The Lions would pay for another poor kick by Rose – a grubber into centre Wynand Olivier’s legs that forced the visitors to concede a penalty at the ruck – as Steyn kicked a penalty to level the scores at 13-13 with two minutes remaining in the first half.
But the Lions struck back after the hooter with a sumptious try, a marvellous individual effort by Jaco Pretorius. The outside centre ghosted through Olivier’s tackle, drifted towards the touchline and then straightened, his sheer pace allowing him to dodge any cover defenders as he scored from his own ten-metre line.
Rose’s conversion meant the Lions were 20-13 up and the match turned tellingly in their favour in the opening ten minutes of the second half, thanks to Wepener.
The 27-year-old does not buckle in a powerful Lions scrum, he throws the ball in straight and he has an amazing ability to pop up in the right place on attack. Wepener is a skilful player too as he showed when two sublime passes from him led to Franco van der Merwe’s marvellous try as the flank beat wing John Mametsa to the tryline from 20 metres out.
Wepener scored again himself just five minutes later, after centre Doppies la Grange’s intercept led to quick turnover ball, but he’ll probably value his role in Van der Merwe’s try even more.
At 30-13 down, the Bulls desperately needed a game-breaker, and their comeback came from replacement Burton Francis. He came on at flyhalf as Steyn shifted to inside centre, Olivier went to outside and Marius Delport replaced Akona Ndungane on the wing.
A wonderful step inside and break saw Francis score under the posts midway through the second half and the Bulls ensured a thrilling finale to a top-class game when they scored again five minutes later.
Replacement scrumhalf Francois Hougaard used the boot to good effect over the back of a scrum and when Cobus Grobbelaar couldn’t take the ball cleanly, he was robbed by Bulls eighthman Pedrie Wannenburg. The former Springbok then won the foot race as he showed good pace to score from 45 metres out.
Steyn’s excellent angled conversion left the Bulls within three points of the Lions, but they just could not access enough ball in the closing stages. Nevertheless, there were some tremendous hits from the likes of Danie Rossouw, Olivier and Wannenburg as it was the Lions who ended the match on attack.
The confidence is clearly growing in Eugene Eloff’s Lions outfit and they definitely sent out a warning to the other Currie Cup contenders. They showed that their game plan is certainly upgradable from a forward-dominated approach and they were willing to give the ball air to good effect on Friday night.
To win at Loftus Versfeld proves the Lions mean business.
Vodacom Blue Bulls
Tries: Zane Kirchner, Burton Francis, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Conversions: Morne Steyn (3).
Penalties: Steyn (2).
Tries: Willie Wepener (2), Jaco Pretorius, Franco van der Merwe.
Conversions: Earl Rose (2).
Penalties: Rose (2).