JOHANNESBURG - Not only did the Lions suffer an unexpected Super Rugby defeat by the unfancied Blues on Saturday night, they also lost their inspirational captain Warren Whiteley in the process.
In a quite stunning second half blitz at Ellis Park, the Blues turned around a 21-3 deficit just before the break to win 38-35, for only their second win in South Africa in 11 matches.
Led by No 8 Akira Ioane, who was sensational throughout the match, and backs like Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams and Melani Nanai, the visitors’ attacking wave was just too much for the Lions in the latter stages of a pulsating match.
The loss at home was just the second in 22 months for the Lions, going back to April 2016. They also lost to the Crusaders in last year’s final.
The Lions, having enjoyed a handy lead for much of the game, were left stunned by not closing out the contest - something they have almost perfected.
“We battled all match to protect our ball,” lamented coach Swys de Bruin. “They’re a very dangerous team with turnover ball ... and that was it.
"It was a game of margins, but we have to close games down, especially when so far ahead.”
Indeed. The Lions should have finished off the game in the 75th minute when replacement prop Dylan Smith barged over from close range to help his side into a 35-24 lead.
They didn’t though and allowed the Blues to strike a double - and match-winning - blow with tries by Jimmy Tupou and Murphy Taramai in a final four-minute feast.
“It was a bit frantic, we got a bit loose, and started giving too much possession away,” said Whiteley about the final 20-odd minutes. “We weren’t clinical enough, we weren’t direct enough.
"We threw balls away ... and we all know if you give them (New Zealand teams) that amount of possession and opportunity they’re going to capitalise. They just showed again how clinical and good they are with turn-over ball.
"It’s very disappointing, mainly because our strength is the last 20 minutes, but that’s when they took the game away from us this time.
"I don’t know when last we were so poor in the final 20 ... with that lead we had we should have closed out the game.”
Whiteley’s match ended as early as the 25th minute when he hobbled off the field with a knee injury.
While De Bruin admitted things might have been different had the captain remained on the field to the end, he said there were more than enough leaders in the side who should have ensured the Lions got over the line.
“Warren is one of a kind, a fantastic leader, but our whole spine (hooker, No 8, scrumhalf, flyhalf, and fullback) are Springboks, so there are lots of leaders in the side. They need to stand up,” said the coach.
Whiteley confirmed afterwards he is likely to miss a few weeks’ action.
“It’s a PCL (posterior cruciate ligament in the knee), probably grade one, so I don’t think it’s too serious,” he said. “Perhaps only a couple of weeks (out) ... I’m walking fine, there’s no pain. It just feels a bit unstable.”
After two narrow defeats, to the Highlanders and Chiefs, Blues coach Tana Umaga was a happy man after what he said was “right up there” for wins in his Super Rugby coaching career.
“People have questioned the culture in our group, but you got a good glimpse of what it is there. The guys played for each other, they showed fortitude, they wanted the win, there was a hunger ... and they kept playing in that second half,” said the former All Blacks captain.
“One win doesn’t mean that’s the season for us, but it’s a confidence-builder for sure, and hopefully good things will come from this. It’s right up there ... not performance-wise because there were lots of errors, but for the heart and grind, and the belief they showed.”
The Lions face the Sunwolves on Saturday, while the Blues are in Cape Town for a date with the Stormers.