The Lions got the South African challenge in the United Rugby Championship off to a successful start when they surprised Zebre 38-26 in Parma in the very first match of the new competition on Friday night.
The Italians were looking to end an eight-match losing streak carried over from Pro 14 while the Lions were desperate to put a horror Currie Cup behind them, but it was the South Africans who turned around their fortunes thanks to a dream first half.
While the Lions did go into the game representing their country’s best chance of victory in a very tough opening round, not even the most die-hard Lions supporter could have predicted their team would be 35-0 up after 30 minutes of the new competition.
Just ten minutes into the game, the first try of the URC was well scored by wing Jamba Ulengo, who finished neatly off the back of a sweeping pass by flyhalf Jordan Hendrikse after the Lions forwards had rampaged through a number of phases from a lineout.
Only a few minutes later, centre Burger Odendaal burst through for a try following precision work by the forwards in a lineout, and the Lions were 14 points clear after Hendrikse’s second conversion.
Before the match, Zebre coach Michael Bradley —the former Ireland scrumhalf of the ’80s — had paid respect to the massive Lions front row of Carlu Sadie, Ruan Dreyer and Jaco Visagie, and the trio duly lived up to the praise by scrumming powerfully to make the set scrums a difficulty for the Italians.
The Lions’ third try originated from an advancing scrum which allowed Hendrikse to orchestrate a lovely backline move that saw left wing Rabz Maxwane in the clear, and he sped home for the try.
Almost incredibly, he had a second try two minutes later when he outpaced the defence to chase down a kick to the in-goal area, and the Lions had a bonus point try in just over 20 minutes.
It became 35-0 ten minutes before halftime when hooker Visagie stormed 45m down the touchline to the corner flag after the ball had fallen favourably for him when Zebre could not deal with an aerial bomb.
The Lions scored the first points of the second half via a Hendrikse penalty but it was a very different Zebre side that came out of the change rooms this time and 12 minutes into the half, flyhalf Carlo Canna danced through the defence for his team’s first points of the match.
Three minutes later the referee awarded a penalty try after the Lions illegally stopped a driving maul and to add insult to injury, Sibusisu Sangweni was yellow carded for his part in the infringement.
Zebre exploited the advantage well when Oliviero Fabiani scored off a driving maul and when centre Tommaso Boni scored it was suddenly 38-26 with 15 minutes to go.
It was a nervy end to the game for the Lions but they held on doggedly for the win.
Lions 38: Tries: Jamba Ulengo, Burger Odendal, Rabz Maxwane (2), Jaco Visagie. Conversions: Jordan Hendrikse (5). Penalty: Hendrikse.
Zebra 26: Try: Carlo Canna, Penalty Try, Tommaso Boni, Oliviero Fabiani. Conversions: Canna (3)