The Xerox Golden Lions produced a magnificent first half but fell off the rails in the second, before holding on for a thrilling 36-28 victory over the Vodacom Blue Bulls in their Absa Currie Cup match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
Seen through the lens of the Currie Cup as a whole, the win should ensure the Lions finish top of the log and host whatever knockout matches they are in, while for the Bulls, their superb comeback failed to earn them a second bonus point, but they are still five points clear of third-placed Western Province.
The Bulls endured a nightmare start when nothing went their way in terms of refereeing decisions and they looked half-asleep, crashing to a 0-30 deficit after 34 minutes, but the way they performed in the second half is perhaps a truer reflection of their quality and the smart money will be on them getting a chance for revenge against the Lions in the final.
Whether referee Marius van der Westhuizen has cataracts or can only raise his right arm was the subject of furious debate for the fans of both sides as he blew the Bulls out of the first half and then proceeded to do the same to the Lions after the break.
The first bad omen for the Bulls would occur in the third minute when the Lions produced a massive shove at the first scrum, winning a tighthead. From there, outside centre Stokkies Hanekom burst through the line out wide and, from the resultant ruck inside the 22, flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff put a pinpoint kick into the hands of Courtnall Skosan for the opening try.
A string of decisions then went against the Blue Bulls, which television replays showed to be incorrect, and they spent the rest of the first quarter manning up in defence. They did that tremendously well, a notable effort being when prop Marcel van der Merwe and lock Jacques du Plessis held Lions loosehead Jacques van Rooyen up over the line, and conceded just a penalty and a drop goal to Boshoff in that time (13-0).
Van der Merwe, unfortunately, was the man responsible for the Lions’ second try, as his pass to nobody fell to centre Howard Mnisi, who charged forward and then passed inside for lock Franco Mostert to storm over the line. The Bulls tighthead was not helped, though, by flyhalf Tian Schoeman’s inexplicable decision to take a short 22m drop-out when the home side were desperately trying to get out of their half.
The deadly-accurate Boshoff added his second conversion and then gained a penalty for offsides four minutes later, putting the Lions 23-0 ahead.
The third try was also gifted to the Lions when the Bulls backline were throwing the ball around well behind the gain-line and Ruan Combrinck stepped up and outside centre Dries Swanepoel promptly passed the ball straight to him, the wing dashing away for a 45m intercept try.
The Bulls looked half-asleep for most of the half, stunned by the intensity, pace and accuracy of the Lions, but as the first half drew to a close, they awoke from their slumber with a try made with surgeon-like precision down the blindside by scrumhalf Francois Hougaard, fullback Warrick Gelant and wing Jamba Ulengo, who made the touchdown.
The Bulls’ problems started in a scrum that battled to contain the powerful Lions unit, but the lineout was a set-piece that worked well for the home side even during the calamitous first half.
The second half saw the momentum totally switch as the Bulls used their lineout to set up some strong driving play.
Boshoff stretched the Lions’ lead, against the run of play, to 33-7 with a 52nd-minute penalty, but the Bulls quickly responded with a try as eighthman Arno Botha forced his way over from a lineout drive.
Replacement flank Deon Stegmann muscled his way over on the hour mark, finishing powerfully after Hougaard had used quick ruck ball to send substitute lock RG Snyman charging over the advantage line, although the Lions could justifiably moan that the dynamic loose forward had placed the ball in the tackle and then grabbed it again as the ruck went over the line.
The Bulls’ fourth, bonus-point try was a messy affair but Ulengo and Galant deserve credit for their footballing skills as they kicked the ball down the right touchline before Ulengo dotted down for his eighth try of the campaign.
Schoeman slotted another excellent touchline conversion to set up a grandstand finish at 28-33, but Boshoff was the man who had the final say with his golden boot, nailing a penalty after a ruck offence.
The Bulls youngsters would have gained a tremendous amount of confidence from their second-half comeback, but the Lions proved they are a top-class outfit and undoubtedly the team to beat.
A powerful pack is brilliant at scrum time, they are a potent force at the breakdown and a backline boasting plenty of pace – Skosan was a handful for the Bulls on Saturday night – offers a cutting edge to the Lions.
Coach Johan Ackermann has built a formidable unit and they confirmed their status as favourites for the title at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
Vodacom Blue Bulls – Tries: Jamba Ulengo (2), Arno Botha, Deon Stegmann. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (4).
Xerox Golden Lions – Tries: Courtnall Skosan, Franco Mostert, Ruan Combrinck. Conversions: Marnitz Boshoff (3). Penalties: Boshoff (4). Drop goal: Boshoff.