The Golden Lions said before the Currie Cup final that they would have to fix the defensive errors that made things close in the semi-final against the Free State Cheetahs, and they did that to great effect while consistently breaking through the Western Province lines on their way to a 32-24 victory and the title at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The scoreboard was a one-sided 29-10 two minutes into the second half, but the lopsided score masked how well the Lions had defended and how soft a couple of their tries had been.
There were nerves all around at the start as both kickers made mistakes, Lions flyhalf Marnitz Boshoff missing two early penalties, but the home side were looking dangerous, making inroads as Western Province tended to tackle around the chest and were also quick to fan out in defence, making them vulnerable to the inside-pass.
These two factors came together perfectly for the Lions in the 14th minute as exciting new outside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg muscled through the too-high tackles of Juan de Jongh and Sikhumbuzo Notshe in midfield and broke clear into Western Province territory.
He held on to the ball too long and it was knocked loose by the tackler, but livewire fullback Andries Coetzee was on hand to pick up and continue the attack. From the next ruck, Warren Whiteley passed out to Boshoff, who immediately passed back inside for the eighthman to burst through a big gap and score the opening try.
Six minutes later, another crucial missed tackle by the visitors saw Coetzee go around the outside without much trouble. Western Province again ignored the close-in channels at the ruck and scrumhalf Ross Cronje threw a short pass and then got the ball immediately back on the inside, dashing over for a try without a hand being laid on him.
Western Province were missing tackles and making basic errors like not finding touch on penalty kicks, losing their own lineouts and kicking turnover ball like tightheads from their powerful scrum straight into touch.
Flyhalf Robert du Preez did kick a 27th-minute penalty to get Western Province on the board, but the Lions threatened to make the final one of the less thrilling spectacles of the season when they scored their third try to claim a 19-3 lead.
Scrumhalf Cronje might not be one of the most highly-rated players in this impressive Lions outfit, but he is an important cog in their fluent attacking play and he will always remember the 2015 Currie Cup final as he scored his second try on his way to winning the man of the match award.
Cronje threw a lovely dummy from the base of a ruck and fought his way through another high and ineffectual tackle to score.
Boshoff then kicked a 38th-minute penalty and the Lions were in firm control with a 22-3 lead and threatening to run away with the final.
Western Province badly needed a way back into the match and it came via their powerful scrum, providing the perfect platform close to the line for Du Preez to knife through for a much-needed try and then convert to bring them back into the game at 10-22 at the break.
The Fat Lady had certainly not sung yet, but she did begin warming up again as the Lions scored two minutes into the second half.
Janse van Rensburg was again a muscular presence in forcing his way between two poor tackle attempts to dot down and round off a strong attack that featured a mini-break by flank Kwagga Smith.
Boshoff converted and the Lions’ lead was back to 19 points (29-10) and the situation was desperate for Western Province.
Once they managed to hang on to the ball for a while, they were able to bring their lethal back three into the game and fullback Cheslin Kolbe was able to scythe through an outside gap to put WP in the red zone, from where eighthman Nizaam Carr’s pace, power and nifty stepping was too much for even the Lions’ defence.
Du Preez converted and suddenly the visitors were two tries away (17-29) with half-an-hour remaining.
Boshoff, however, slotted a crucial long-range penalty from 51 metres after replacement prop Oli Kebble had been penalised for a dangerous tackle, which forced Western Province to score three times.
Their powerful scrum forced a penalty, which was kicked to touch, allowing Western Province’s rolling maul to surge over the tryline, Notshe getting the try.
Coleman converted to make it 24-32, but Western Province continued to lose lineout and breakdown ball to stymie their comeback, and a harsh yellow card to replacement lock Chris van Zyl, for not using his arms in clearing out a ruck, was the final blow.
To go through a Currie Cup season unbeaten is a remarkable achievement, not seen since the Natal Sharks did it in 1996, and the Lions and their coaches deserve enormous credit.
Johan Ackermann has honed their pack into a tremendous unit, but locks Franco Mostert and Lourens Erasmus stood out on Saturday in their efforts to ensure momentum for the Lions.
Their hard-working loose trio brings tremendous presence to the breakdowns and Janse van Rensburg and Coetzee took the attack to the opposition most effectively.