“Obviously we’re very pleased and it was good to see everything come together tonight. The players have always been positive, even in those bad patches just before and on tour, so I’m very pleased for them,” Lions coach Johan Ackermann said in the wake of the Lions’ biggest SuperRugby triumph.
It is a wonderful story of the underdog, who everyone expected to be the whipping boys upon their return to SuperRugby, rising above their individual talents and proving that hunger and good coaching can take a team a long way. Although they only finished in 12th place, the Lions had as many wins as the three sides immediately above them on the log – the Stormers, Blues and Bulls.
“We have a good team profile, although maybe we don’t have the biggest guys, but they can run and play. They’ve shown the willingness to work hard, they were asked to play with commitment and pride, and that comes from deep inside. The challenge is to keep that hunger,” Ackermann said.
Even the overwhelming win over the Cheetahs was not achieved without the hard work that has become the hallmark of this Lions side.
The Cheetahs dominated the first quarter to lead 10-3 and the opening exchanges of the second half were fiercely contested as the visitors closed to within seven points.
But the forward dominance of the Lions – especially in the scrums – was tiring the Cheetahs and forcing them to try and cut corners, leading to ill-discipline and yellow cards. Plus the visitors’ defence was once again weak at critical moments.
The Lions seized control from the 52nd minute when the selection of Coenie Oosthuizen at tighthead once again failed and the Springbok was yellow-carded for yet another scrummaging offence under pressure from Schalk van der Merwe. The lineout and rolling maul were set by the Lions, and hooker Robbie Coetzee scored the try that stretched the lead to 34-20 with sharpshooter Elton Jantjies’ conversion.
Things rapidly turned sour for the Cheetahs thereafter as eighthman Warren Whiteley, after wing Anthony Volmink had pounced on a spilt ball by Willie Roux, Andries Coetzee, running the length of the field after an intercept, wing Lionel Mapoe, from turnover ball deep in his own half, and replacement prop Corne’ Fourie, with a thrilling run and dummy, all scored tries.
Apart from the excellence of their front row, the Lions loose trio foraged and attacked like a pack of wild curs, while Jantjies, making a rare start, dished up an accomplished performance at flyhalf, not least of all with the boot as he succeeded with nine of his 10 kicks at goal.
Cheetahs wing Cornal Hendricks did have the pace – and the football skills – to score a breakaway try from his own 22, but it’s clear the Central franchise have serious problems.
“We’re our own worst enemies,” captain Adriaan Strauss admitted. “In the first half we created one or two chances, so we weren’t out of the game from the get-go. But our discipline let us down, we gave them easy exits and let them run at us.
“When you have cards, it messes with the roles and responsibilities of guys in the defensive line. There are guys missing so the opposition attack that space, and when you adjust, they attack other spaces.”
The impressive Lions squad obviously now have a price on their heads, with the other franchises sniffing around at Ellis Park.
“Obviously the players are now being hunted and I hope we can hang on to them. But the core of the squad has already been signed up and we hope to build on that. A new year brings new challenges and you can’t rely on what you did the previous year. The hard work starts all over again,” Ackermann said.
But, as this match graphically illustrated, it’s not how you start but how you finish that counts.
The Cheetahs started brightly, with Le Roux setting up the opening try in the 17th minute as he found Raymond Rhule with a long pass, the wing striding past fullback Coetzee and then passing inside for the Springbok fullback to score.
But the Lions struck back with the first of Mapoe’s hat-trick of tries, a lovely break by Jantjies going a long way to setting him up, and the much-improved scrumhalf Ross Cronje then showed nifty footwork to beat a couple of defenders and score the home side’s second try.
The Lions’ penchant for long-range tries was once again on display six minutes before the break as they counter-attacked from their own 22. Practically everyone handled the ball until Mapoe gathered a half-charged grubber from impressive centre Stokkies Hanekom and burst through to score.
Cheetahs mentor Naka Drotske complained of a “19-5 penalty count and four yellow cards” against his team – the actual stats were 12 penalties against 11 and three dismissals – but such spurious outbursts are a clear sign of a coach whose job is in the balance.
Given that the Cheetahs, with several Springboks in their ranks, finished in 14th position, having featured in the playoffs last season, it seems entirely fair that serious questions should be asked about Drotske’s future.