The Lions’ dream start to this year’s Super Rugby competition continues and the Bulls are seriously back in business, but the Stormers and Cheetahs have a mountain to climb. And the Sharks are, perhaps, not so invincible after all.
On a weekend of mixed fortunes for the South African teams, the biggest surprise came at Ellis Park where the Lions shocked the Reds to register their fourth win in six matches on their return to the competition.
Johan Ackermann’s men turned around a 17-point deficit to record a 23-20 win – just a week on from downing the Blues. But it was a victory many will feel came with the assistance of referee Stuart Berry, who sin-binned two Reds’ players in the closing stages of the match and heavily penalised the men from Brisbane. In total Berry penalised the Reds 17 times, with 10 of those penalties being in the second half, while the Lions conceded just four penalties during the entire match.
The Lions took a full toll of the indisciplined visiting team, who ran out of puff the longer the game went on, and scored second- half tries through Lionel Mapoe and Courtnall Skosan – a try many will say was far from clear-cut – and flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff did the rest with the boot.
It was a stunning turnaround after the Reds had dominated the first half, with Quade Cooper scoring two tries and kicking all the other points as well.
But if many may feel the victory was somewhat controversial, this should take nothing away from the Lions. They were comprehensively outplayed for 40 minutes, but then hit back in the second half, starving the Reds of possession and territory and dominating the set-pieces, with their forwards particularly impressive. They kicked well, contested the breakdowns well and showed a far greater hunger and desire than they did in the first half. They were the better disciplined side, too – and let’s not forget the Reds went into the game as the team that had conceded the most penalties and free-kicks, on average 14.5 per game.
The Lions may not have the all-round quality and depth of some other teams, but at Ellis Park they’re a tough nut to crack and, right now, they’re playing with confidence and belief. They have a never-say-die attitude and never stop trying and for that they should be commended. What they don’t have control of is how the referee sees the game.
The Lions have a bye this weekend, occupying fourth spot on the log, before returning to action against the Crusaders.
The other big winners at the weekend were the Bulls who, after a poor start to their campaign, are back in the mix after putting together some strong performances – the best being their win over the Sharks at Loftus on Saturday.
They played with aggression and intensity and controlled the tempo of the game, handing Jake White and his charges their first defeat of the season. Veteran lock Victor Matfield’s experience and calming influence has played a big role in the Bulls’ recent surge and if they continue in this vein, they could well have a season to remember. It has become clear that the Bulls must have Matfield in their starting team if they are to launch a serious challenge and that, in itself, poses a number of questions for the coaching team as Matfield was supposed to be carefully managed in his comeback season.
The Sharks’ first defeat was also their first away from home but, despite this hiccup, there won’t be any panic in the camp. They remain a classy outfit who weren’t helped on Saturday when they lost key halfbacks Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie inside 10 minutes.
The Stormers and Cheetahs put up brave performances abroad, but poor goal-kicking on the part of Peter Grant cost them dearly against the Brumbies, while the Cheetahs’ shaky defence allowed the Blues to win a big-scoring game. Both teams have won just once and prop up the points table – something no-one would have predicted at the start of the year.
Bulls 23 Sharks 19; Lions 23 Reds 20; Force 18 Chiefs 15; Brumbies 25 Stormers 15; Blues 40 Cheetahs 30; Waratahs 32 Rebels 8; Highlanders 35 Hurricanes 31
Friday: Crusaders v Hurricanes; Rebels v Brumbies
Saturday: Blues v Highlanders; Reds v Stormers; Bulls v Chiefs; Sharks v Waratahs - The Star