For 60 minutes the Lions held on, making a fist of their opening Rainbow Cup South Africa encounter against the Bull at Loftus Versveld. The Joburgers, however, would ultimately lose 24-9 and here we take a look at five characteristics that defined their game and the defeat.
1 Jantjies was missed
As the weeks go on, it will become much clearer just how much the Lions will miss talisman and captain Elton Jantjies but many will argue that it was already evident in the loss to the Bulls.
This is not to say that Fred Zeilinga was bad at pivot - in fact he was arguably one of the better players for the team, and it will probably take a few more games for him to be fully integrated into the Joburgers gameplan and ethos. So, hopefully, the outfit can expect improved displays from the No 10 in the coming weeks.
Nevertheless, the Lions backline was pretty flat in general, and did not make the yards expected of such a talented unit, save perhaps for Wandisile Simelane, who at times was industrious on attack and showed off his stepping prowess. Jantjies has always provided the impetus on attack for the team with his excellent passing, vision and general distribution, and the Lions seemed to miss his spark of influence on Saturday.
Jantjies has yet to play for French Cup Pau since leaving as a medical joker, mainly due to the non-participation of the French club in the Champions Cup - maybe he will do so against Agen this Saturday.
2 Swanepoel injury was a set-back … sort off
There was no guarantee that had full-back Tiaan Swanepoel stayed on the field on Saturday before his freak injury, that the Lions would have been more competitive. His replacement EW Viljoen had a competent outing in the No 15 jersey, his positional play especially noteworthy. He also gained 25 meters, made six passes and beat two defenders and was generally good under the high-ball.
Swanepoel's greatest strength, his kicking ability, was missed in the territorial battle, and it could have made a larger impact on the scoreboard as well. The Bulls were pinged for seven penalties in their own half, and a further 11 beyond the 50m line, three of which were slotted over by Zeilinga for the team's nine points. Had Swanepoel been on the field, he could have slotted a possible 21 points over, making it a tighter affair.
A long-term injury to Swanepoel, moreover, could have dire consequences for the Lions, especially if Zeilinga also gets injured, and if there is a tight match that could be won by a booming own-half penalty.
Which brings us to the next point …
3 The Lions did not look like they would score
The Joburgers rarely threatened the tryline of the Bulls, and that will be a huge concern for coach Ivan van Rooyen. The reasons are not clear cut because the Lions had at times some good momentum behind them, and did fairly well at the rucks (they had a 91% success rate) winning eight turnovers at the breakdown, while losing nine.
Their set-pieces weren't to shabby either - they lost one scrum, and through Carlu Sadie won a tighthead in the second half, while their line-outs operated just well enough under huge amounts of pressure, until the 67th minute when it went a bit pear-shaped due to the inaccuracy of replacement Nathan McBeth.
The Bulls defence was good, but it wasn't unbreakable. The Lions maul had its moments, and was well set on the few occasions it formed. Perhaps it was the one-off runners the Lions employed to crash-ball into the defence, perhaps it was Andre Warner's inability to recycle quick ball at the base of the ruck due to the ebb and flow of the forwards’ battle, and it certainly was a problem with the backline not finding space due to a tight defensive line, and the fact that they were pinned in their own 22 in the final 20 minutes of the match. So, while the Lions seemed to be in the fight for most of the match, all their deficiencies together as a unit were exposed by the better game-management and execution of the Bulls.
4 And speaking of the forwards
As noted above, the Lions pack was good but not great. They kept the Joburgers in the game, that much can be said, for 60 minutes of the match. This is especially true of the loose-trio of MJ Pelser, Vincent Tshituka, and Francke Horn. Of the eight turnovers at that particular area of the match, the loosies, including replacement Hacjicah Dayimani, won seven of them.
But equally, the Lions were also guilty of not doing enough to protect their own ball. The absence of Willem Alberts was telling, however, as the burly lock's runs and defensive output was missed. Hopefully, he will be fit for this weekend's clash against the Sharks.
A question must also be raised as to why Jannie du Plessis got a start ahead of Sadie. The good Doctor was okay in the first half, but there was a notable improvement at tighthead prop once the youngster was on the field.
4 The defence needs improvement
The Lions made 112 tackles on Saturday, but missed 24, for a 79% tackle success. That is far too low and it was especially jarring in the first half when they slipped several too many contact points. It resulted in the opening try of the match for the Bulls in the second minute - the Lions especially poor during that passage of play.
Their defence was a concern during their preparation series owing to the nature of those matches, but in a tournament that will be far more tighter and intense, they will need to up the ante when they do not have the ball in hand. Yes, their system improved as the match progressed, and it earned the respect of the Bulls, but the Lions can consider themselves lucky that the points against them was not more as the Currie Cup champions were denied three tries during the match.
5 They can beat the Sharks
Despite a less than ideal start to their Rainbow Cup campaign, the Lions can bounce back on Saturday in Durban. The Sharks were helped heaps by the indiscipline of the Stormers - two red cards, and a yellow - and a shocking second half performance by the Cape Townians, something the Lions must and can certainly avoid.
The Sharks line-out was shaky at times, and if the Lions can impose themselves at scrum-time, then they will boss the encounter. The backline will need the most attention this week, as will winning the contact points, but if the Lions can sort out those problems, and transfer their failings onto the Durbanites, they can come back from their two away games with a victory.
It won't be easy, but the belief in the Lions is such that anything is possible.