Inconsistent Lions failed themselves

Edwill van der Merwe of the Lions is tackled by Ben Loader of the Stormers in their URC clash on Saturday. | BackpagePix

Edwill van der Merwe of the Lions is tackled by Ben Loader of the Stormers in their URC clash on Saturday. | BackpagePix

Published Jun 3, 2024


Morgan Bolton


Perhaps when the Lions look back at their 2023/24 United Rugby Championship season, and especially their last match against the Stormers in Cape Town this past weekend, they will come to the conclusion that they conspired against themselves to deny their ambitions.

There were moments in the clash against the Cape-based side that the Lions had options – play it safe or go for the jugular. They chose discretion instead of valour.

Despite the 29-24 loss, JC Pretorius of the Lions was the Player of the Match. | . BackpagePix

Their conservatism in those moments is understandable – they required a win to be safe and to progress to the play-offs – but on the flip side, any slip up, as was the case in the 29-24 loss, would end their season.

The latter shaped up to be the case after the Ospreys beat Cardiff with a bonus point, landing alongside the Lions on 50 points but knocking them down to ninth on the URC log due to the fact the Welsh franchise had won more matches. Perhaps Ivan van Rooyen and Co should have driven the team to play with more aspiration because when they did so, they had the Stormers back-pedalling.

Of course, the injuries to Rabz Maxwane and Sanele Nohamba did not help as the Lions found themselves shuffling their backline around, which would have disrupted their flow. They were also unable to convince the match officials to rule in their favour at scrum time – they only attributed infractions to the Stormers’ dominance – which robbed them of a platform on attack and in defence.

“At one stage there in their 22, close to the tryline on advantage, that was the moment that probably decided the game for us,” Van Rooyen lamented after the match.

“One more pass, one different decision and we probably score there. That’s how close it was. That’s how small the margins are.”

That is perhaps the best description of the Lions’ season – one more play, one more minute, one more match and it could have clicked, and they would have qualified for the quarter-finals. There were also three costly home defeats against the Stormers (33-35), Bulls (10-25) and Munster (14-38), which offset some excellent work away against the Scarlets, Sharks and Connacht.

The Lions lost the scrum battle on Saturday against the Stormers. | BackpagePix

It speaks to a larger narrative, one of inconsistency.

The Lions won half of their matches this season, failing to string together consistent performances and victories. Inevitably, an excellent victory or outing was followed by a lethargic one. That was especially jarring after they smashed Connacht in Galway, only to be lacklustre against the Ospreys a week later.

Against the Glasgow Warriors last weekend they were ruthless; this past Saturday they were arguably a bit too cautious.

Despite the disappointment of another season where they have been knocked out of the URC play-offs, there were several positives.

The Lions will probably start the new season with a few more Springboks in their ranks. Sanele Nohamba, who will go through concussion protocols for the next week or so, was undoubtedly the star player of their season. He was magnificent at 10, but is perhaps even better at scrumhalf.

Quan Horn, Morne van den Berg and Ruan Venter should all have a Test cap to their names when the new season starts against the Sharks in September. JC Pretorius is a gem of a find, and made huge strides in his 15s play.

He was Player of the Match three times in a row – against Cardiff, Glasgow and in the loss to the Stormers. There will be a few squad changes to deal with next season, but the core is built.