Super Rugby showcased a return-to-form in more ways than one this past weekend, delivering high-intensity local derbies and some trans-country battles against South Africa’s New Zealand and Australian counterparts; but among all the teams on show, the standout performers were undoubtedly the Lions.
While no one is underestimating the ability of the Lions, the Johannesburg side were being considered the underdogs heading to Loftus to take on the Bulls, especially following a strong performance from the Bulls that downed the Hurricanes 21-19 a week before.
An aspect which has stuttered the Lions in past seasons were the big away games, but the spectacle of Loftus didn’t provide enough intimidation to sway Swys de Bruin’s side. The Lions delivered a clinical rendition that not only highlighted their best attributes, but also showcased the team’s ability to adapt to situations – something South African teams seem to struggle with immensely.
The free-running Lions style was on show again, being brilliantly orchestrated by Elton Jantjies, who, along with his solid defence, showed a great breadth of attacking skills from passing and running to tactical kicks and grubbers – one of which that led to a great try.
The real eye-opener, though, was the dominance of the Lions forwards, who put together as sublime display of physical prowess at the breakdown and set-pieces. Ironically, the driving maul from lineouts proved to be the Bulls’ achilles heel, being as it was their biggest weapon in their 2007-2010 heyday. This is where the Lions showed impressive adaption – even when the Bulls learned to defend it, the Lions changed the intensity and attack angle to ensure a second try from the same move.
This capitalisation of opportunities extended to the yellow-card periods the Bulls endured, as the Lions ensured to put tries away and rack up some points during the Bulls’ 13-man survival scenario.
The Lions did lose concentration in the last two minutes of the game, where the Bulls scored a try on the 75th and 77th, making the affair a far more flattering outing than the reality. These final moments are where the Lions will need to maintain composure if they’re to handle the gruelling playoff stages with foreign opposition. That said, the Lions’ ability to change and improve during a match is one of the noticeable features that hasn’t been apparent in recent years, but what is common with all previous championship winners.
After their hands slipped off the Super Rugby trophy twice, the Lions have entered 2018 with a heightened hunger to ensure that doesn’t happen again. There’s an undeniable determination in the way they’re doing things – with players showing a calm and collectedness around their roles – completing the most clinical of tasks with a sense of ease. As spectators, we’ve become somewhat accustomed to (I’ll say it) sloppy and unsettled rugby performances, and it’s great to see a South African team plan and execute a game-plan so well. And, the fact that they’re doing it with smiles on their faces, makes for a recipe that’s very difficult for other teams to compete with.