The Emirates Lions shrugged off any suggestions that they might fade after returning from their epic tour of Australasia as they snatched a last-minute 22-18 win over the Vodacom Bulls in a dramatic SuperRugby match at Ellis Park on Saturday.
For 79 minutes there weren’t any tries, but there was no shortage of intensity nor excitement as the two neighbours went at each other tooth, claw and horns, flyhalves Elton Jantjies and Jacques-Louis Potgieter trading the penalties that came from hard-earned, narrow advantages.
There also cannot be any doubts about the belief within this Lions side either as, having controversially seen Jaco Kriel called up for a marginal late tackle by the TMO, the penalty being advanced into range for Potgieter to give the Bulls an 18-15 lead with less than a minute to play, they came storming up in defence to set themselves up for the dramatic winning try.
Hooker Armand van der Merwe is the sort of employee any union would want – he sits long hours on the bench but never fails to make an impact when he comes on and is a constant source of inspiration for his team-mates. The stocky 23-year-old merely added to his growing legend at Ellis Park as he barged over for the winning try after the Lions had tapped the penalty they earned after counter-rucking the Bulls off the ball from the restart.
For most of the first half, it looked as if the slow poison of the Bulls would get the better of the Lions. The visitors had dominated territory and possession, and although the attacking play of the Lions had looked sharp, they simply never had enough of the ball.
The effects of the strangulation took a while to be reflected on the scoreboard, however, as Potgieter missed an early drop-goal attempt and two long-range penalties, while Jantjies took six points from the Lions’ two forays into Bulls’ territory.
But the ferocious work of the Bulls at the breakdowns and in defence eventually took its toll.
The scrums were a terrific contest throughout and the Bulls gained an early confidence boost with a massive effort that shoved the Lions back 15 metres, earning Potgieter’s first successful kick at goals in the 26th minute.
The powerful driving play of Trevor Nyakane, Pierre Spies and Deon Stegmann earned another three points eight minutes later and then the power of the rolling maul allowed Potgieter to put the Bulls 9-6 ahead at the break.
The Lions started the second half with all the verve they are famous for, lifting the tempo and stretching the Bulls. But eventually the stout defence forced the error and the Bulls swept upfield. They looked set to score the opening try in the left corner, but the ball went astray and they could not add to their lead.
It was obviously a crucial moment as the game then “regressed” into a tremendous arm-wrestle, with penalties the only concessions either side was willing to give.
The scrum took centre stage and the penalties went this way and that as the reserve front rows came on.
Jantjies first levelled the scores at 9-9 in the 57th minute and then claimed a 12-9 lead after Morne Mellet lost his bind and scrummed in on the loosehead side.
But the Lions were then penalised for hands in the ruck (12-12) and then the Bulls scrum won another penalty for Potgieter in the 70th minute.
The Bulls’ 15-12 lead only lasted four minutes, however, as the Lions’ maul then steamrolled their way to another penalty, kicked by Jantjies.
But the controversial Kriel penalty in the 79th minute seemed to have decided the outcome, before the Lions showed the spirit and belief that characterised the matches overseas to claim the spoils from the most dramatic of matches.
Lions – Try: Armand van der Merwe. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalties: Jantjies (5).
Bulls – Penalties: Jacques-Louis Potgieter (6).