Van Rooyen praises 14-man Lions’ ‘awesome’ effort against Connacht

Lions wing Edwill van der Merwe, who was one of the try- scorers, takes on the Connacht defence in Galway on Saturday. Photo: BackpagePix

Lions wing Edwill van der Merwe, who was one of the try- scorers, takes on the Connacht defence in Galway on Saturday. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Mar 25, 2024


The Lions’ fighting win in Galway on Saturday night underpinned their top-eight credentials in the United Rugby Championship (URC) as they toppled Connacht to grab a play-off spot.

Playing with 14 men for most of the match, the Ivan van Rooyen-coached side broke the duck of South African teams in the Irish province by beating the home side 38-14 against expectations.

The six-try drubbing pushed them into eighth position on the overall URC table, and with one more away fixture against the Ospreys in Swansea this Saturday (5.05pm kick-off, SA time) and a handful of home games, a first play-off spot for the Ellis Park side suddenly does not look out of reach.

They produced a commanding display with their maul, even though burly prop Asenathi Ntlabakanye was sent off with a red card within the first 20 minutes.

The Jozi side stuck it out in the first half and tightened the screws in the second 40 to race away against their hosts who, thanks to the loss, fell out of the play-off places.

Flank JC Pretorius, the former Blitzbok star, was the player of the match and opened the scoring for the visitors, while star No 8 Francke Horn grabbed a brace.

“To see the fight, the work rate and effort, and even guys having a crack in the 80th minute, was awesome to see,” Van Rooyen said after the win.

“When we went down to 14 men, I thought if we had to take a forward or back off. With Connacht’s attacking style, we just thought maybe they’d get too big of an advantage there.

“So, we had to make a decision, and Manu (Emmanuel Tshituka) was the guy to miss out.

“But I felt from the beginning, we were in it with a little bit of momentum, and the message to the guys was just to keep on going.

“It’s a massive win. We knew coming into this two-game URC tour that we’ve got to get as many points as possible, and like I said, it’s so congested on the log.

“There is obviously a bit of belief after a win like this, and it will be important for us to enjoy it and reset, and go over to Wales and get on with it.”

What helped the Lions as well was the spring conditions in Galway, normally a place where visiting sides struggle with the wet, wintry climate and the wind often blows them off the park.

Although it was windy, the sunny conditions meant the Lions could stick to their adventurous brand of attacking rugby, which they coupled nicely with their devastating rolling maul.

“It was dry, which we didn’t really expect, but it was chilly. The wind was, in our terms, strong. I think here it was average,” Van Rooyen said.

“We expected (it to be) wet, so it (the dry conditions) was a blessing.”

Next up, the Ospreys wait on Van Rooyen and his men, and the Lions can cement their place among the top eight with another commanding bonus-point win.

A lot of water must still run into the ocean for the URC play-off spots to be determined, but the Lions did themselves a massive favour by becoming the first South African side to win in Galway.

This weekend, though, a different challenge lies ahead in Wales, and with the Ospreys also gunning for a place in the knockouts, the Lions will have their work cut out for them.

If Van Rooyen’s side can bank another win on tour, it will set them up perfectly for their Challenge Cup play-off against fellow URC side Benetton on April 6 in Italy.

Points scorers

Lions 38 – Tries: JC Pretorius, Edwill van der Merwe, Erich Cronjé, Francke Horn (2), Morné van den Berg. Conversions: Jordan Hendrikse (4).

Connacht 14 – Tries: Cian Prendergast, JJ Hanrahan. Conversions: Hanrahan (2).