Victory over Benetton boosts Lions’ confidence ahead of Challenge Cup clash

Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen.

FILE - Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen. Photo: Huw Evans Agency/Shutterstock/BackpagePix

Published Mar 26, 2023


Johannesburg — The Lions stalked their prey, waiting patiently to pounce and when they noticed their opposition were distracted by possible success, they found their strength and speed, charged forward, and went in for the kill against a reeling Benetton.

In the process, they gave themselves a sniff at much larger targets on the horizon in the United Rugby Championship, and more so in the Challenge Cup.

Now, after three consecutive victories in the URC, the Johannesburg-based side can dream to hope of a top eight finish. It was only a handful of weeks ago that the union admitted that their playoff push was arguably over.

A pragmatic approach would hold to that notion, but the 32-28 victory over the Italian franchise in Treviso on Saturday has cracked open the slightest of opportunities in that competition. Improbable but not impossible would be the state of play with two rounds remaining in the tournament.

The Lions are now 11th on the standings. They have collected 38 points but crucially are only three points behind the Sharks, who currently occupy eighth spot after their shocking defeat to Scarlets on Saturday.

The odds remain long that the Lions can finish in that spot or higher, however, as they will need a host of results to go their way. Firstly, they will have to beat both Leinster and Zebre on consecutive weekends, starting on April 15; and for good measure collect a full-house of points against the No 1 and bottom-ranked teams in the competition, respectively.

That will give the Lions 48 points in the standings – the same number as fifth-placed Munster, who must travel to South Africa for their final matches against the Stormers and Sharks.

The Lions are in a battle for that eighth spot against Cardiff, Benetton, the Sharks, Bulls, Connacht, and Munster, with the latter arguably only a mathematical chance at best as any points they collect in SA will be enough to deny the Lions specifically. Ivan van Rooyen & Co must, therefore, hope that the other five teams lose at least one of their two remaining matches and knock each other out of the running to keep their ambitions alive.

Meanwhile, the victory over Benetton will certainly boost the self-belief of the squad ahead of their round 16 clash against French Top 14 club Racing 14 this weekend. And while the URC might be an undiscovered country regarding its eventual outcome, the Lions should be a confident bunch against the Sky Blues and Whites at Ellis Park that they can progress to the quarter-finals.

That will arguably be the most important outcome of their recent run of form.

After the victory this past weekend, Van Rooyen explained how they would keep that winning-momentum going this Saturday at home.

“We were a little bit slow in that first 20, 30 minutes,” Van Rooyen said.

“We gave the ball to Benetton and then we had to scramble. That last 20 minutes we managed to turn that around and that is how we need to start against Racing.

“They are also going to be travelling, so it is going to be important for us to be accurate this week in training and really start like a house on fire against them to put them under pressure.

“We land in Joburg on (today) and will have a recovery day to get the flight out of our legs. We will train (tomorrow) and Wednesday, have another recovery day on Thursday to freshen up.

“Friday will be the captain’s run and then Saturday is the game. It is important for us on Tuesday and Wednesday to be spot on, on what we want to do in terms of fix-its and how we want to play against Racing.”

The Challenge Cup clash against Racing kicks off at 6.30pm on Saturday. The Currie Cup clash between the Lions and Sharks will act as the curtain-raiser at 3.30pm.


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