Johannesburg - The Lions played their best rugby of the year but still lost 21-13 to perennial Uniter Rugby Championship champions Leinster in Dublin on Friday evening, but they can hold their heads up high after a plucky performance.
Most rugby folk were expecting a rout given Leinster’s pedigree and the Lions' lowly place in the standings, but the South Africans produced the best rugby they had played since they shocked the Stormers in Cape Town in December, their last victory before four heavy losses going into this match.
The Lions responded to defence coach Jaque Fourie’s call to arms and they kept Leinster from scoring a bonus-point try, which is unusual for the free-scoring Irish team.
Key to the Lions’ much-improved showing was their excellent set-piece, especially their scrum, which had the Leinster pack in retreat at almost every engagement. That set scrum exerted so much pressure on Leinster that they were forced into conceding an uncharacteristic eight penalties in the first half alone, a figure they normally conceded in an entire game.
But for all the praise the Lions deserve for losing with honour, they still return from Dublin without a log point for their effort and knowing that they had plenty of opportunities to score more points and, indeed, they could have won the game had they not been so wasteful.
They started the game well when Carlu Sadie propelled the set scrum forward to earn a penalty. Jordan Hendrikse, back from a long-term injury, missed the shot at goal and then missed a second opportunity a minute later, and these were both inside the first four minutes.
And having weathered something of a storm, Leinster scored with their first attack of the game, left wing Dave Carney finishing off a slick backline movement.
It was third time lucky for Hendrikse at goal a few minutes later. It was not long after he kicked a monster punt to touch to give his pack a shot at driving a maul over the line and while they did not score, they had another go at the line on the half-hour mark after a stunning break by scrumhalf Morne van den Berg, but again they could not convert.
But they clawed three points back via the boot of Hendrikse as halftime drew nearer and at 7-6 the Lions would have been thrilled, especially considering the home team is renowned for their fast starts.
The first half had ended with Leinster held up over the line and it started with similar pressure and after seven minutes prop Michael Ala’alatoa barrelled over, and when flanker Scott Penny smashed over after a penalty had been kicked to the corner, all of a sudden the Lions were 21-6 behind.
The question now was whether the Lions would fold or fight back?
They did not roll over and when right wing Stean Pienaar looked like he was going to complete a 60m counter-attack, it took a magnificent cover tackle from wing Tommy O’Brien to tackle him into touch at the corner flag.
And as the game hit the three-quarter mark, they earned a penalty deep in the Leinster 22 and they opted for a scrum, their most potent weapon, but they could not make it count despite a number of surges at the tryline.
They did eventually score in the 78th minute, when Jaco Kriel made the most of momentum initiated from yet another powerful scrum.
Leinster: Tries: Dave Kearney, Michael Ala’alatoa, Scott Penny. Conversions: Ross Byrne (3)
Lions: Penalties: Jordan Hendrikse (2). Try: Jaco Kriel. Conversion: Hendrikse.