Lions conspire against themselves
Gavin Rich
May 12, 2018

The Highlanders will thank their superior skill, accuracy and tempo for their 39-27 Vodacom Super Rugby win that keeps their home fortress Forsyth Barr Stadium intact but the Emirates Lions should have left Dunedin on Saturday night feeling they had conspired against themselves.

The defeat and failure to pick up a bonus point for the second week in a row means that the Lions will return to South Africa after their four match tour of Australasia in a very different space to what they were when they flew out. Their comfortable lead at the top of the South African Conference has now been whittled down to the extent that they have become vulnerable to an ambitious four team chasing pack.

It also means that they will end the league phase of the competition without a win over a New Zealand team and having failed in both games played on Kiwi soil. That means that if they find themselves travelling to New Zealand should they somehow manage to make it into another final, they will do so with little confidence of success.

It could have been so different for while the Highlanders did bounce back well from their savaging at the hands of the Sharks the previous week, the Lions let themselves down with a litany of errors that prevented them from pushing on and taking control on the several occasions during the game when they fought their way back.

Chances went abegging throughout the game because of rank poor handling, and several of the Highlanders’ five tries came about as the product of Lions error. In fact only their fifth try, a well created score finished off by Teihorangi Walden which featured his impressive midfield partner Rob Thompson, came about because of something other than Lions blemish.

It started in the fourth minute of the match. The Lions, who troubled the Highlanders in the lineout throughout the match, took a good ball against the throw through Marvin Orie, but scrumhalf Nic Groom had an attempted box kick half charged down and it ended up with Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga scoring the first try of the match.

The trend had been set and the tendency to waste scoring opportunities started to make itself felt not long after that Highlanders score as the Lions produced a mixture of rapier and thrust in a promising attack that was wasted through a rank poor handling error.

At least on that occasion the Lions did end up getting some profit from their foray into enemy territory, with Elton Jantjies kicking a penalty to make it 7-3, but the Lions then fell back into a soft, lazy period where their defence was too passive and the Highlanders extended their lead to 11 points through a 13th minute converted try to hooker Liam Coltman.

Then came another of those mistakes on the attack as Orie, who was impressive in the early stages, broke free inside the Highlanders 22 only for the passing to be a bit frenetic and leading to an Aphiwe Dyantyi knock-on. The Highlanders, as was their wont, made the most of the ball when it went loose and Ben Smith ended up scoring at the other end after the ball came off Lions lock Andries Ferreira’s head. Fortunately for the Lions, the TMO ruled against the score.

Ferreira was guilty of being a lazy runner there and it later became evident that he may have been labouring because of injury as he was soon replaced by Lourens Erasmus, who promptly produced the handling error that resulted in another promising Lions build-up leading to a Highlanders try. This time the Highlanders counter-attack was carried through 13 phases, and there was another Lions mistake that contributed towards the end of the build-up as Thompson slipped through an ineffectual tackle attempt before sending No 8 Luke Whitelock in for the five pointer.

The Lions started to get some momentum after that, they eliminated their errors, and their mauling started to trouble the hosts, who were repeatedly penalised for collapsing. Two tries in the last minutes of the half, one scored by Harold Vorster off an inside ball from Jantjies after a good play from an attacking lineout, and the other notched by hooker Robbie Coetzee off a lineout drive after the hooter, made it just a four point game (19-15) at the break.

The Lions would have felt invigorated by those scores and would have started the second half feeling that although they were trailing, they were the team with the momentum. It was time for the Lions’ pack to step up and really take control, as they were threatening to just before halftime, but instead they produced another of those charitable moments that led to profit for the Highlanders.

The Highlanders attacked from the restart but big replacement lock Erasmus was excellent in ripping the ball out of their hands and breaking free up the left touchline. It looked like something might be on for the Lions but Erasmus ruined his good work with a wild pass inside. It was just another loose ball opportunity that the Highlanders gleefully accepted, this time Waisake Naholo was the Highlander who completed the try.

Full marks to the Lions for the way they refused to give up in this difficult last match of a tough tour, and another driving maul try brought them back to within six points. Following the 63rd minute Walden score that had appeared to close off any chance of a Lions win they again fought back, with a try from replacement flank Marnus Schoeman making it 33-27. The Lions had a chance.

That it came to nothing was because the Lions failed to cleanly field a kick and with the Highlanders applying pressure Schoeman played the ball as the second man in at a ruck and Sopoaga punished the mistake by kicking the three pointer from the angle. Sopoaga then added another penalty before fulltime to make it a slightly flattering 12 point winning margin.

The Lions cannot be faulted for effort but on the night their error rate just didn’t allow them to compete against a team that thrives on profiting from opposition mistakes.

Let it be said too though that there were also times when the Lions didn’t have the rub of the green when it came to the refereeing. In another game and with a different referee and set of assistants an attempted Sopoaga intercept would have led to a Lions penalty and perhaps a yellow card, and on another occasion a strong Ruan Combrinck run down the wing was halted by the assistant ref spotting a touch on the line that replays showed to be a figment of his imagination.

In a game where small margins made a difference, those calls hamstrung the Lions, though not as much as they hamstrung themselves.


Highlanders 39 – Tries: Lima Sopoaga, Lima Coltman, Luke Whitelock, Waisake Naholo and Teihorangi Waldron; Conversions: Lima Sopoaga 4; Penalties: Lima Sopoaga 2.
Emirates Lions 27 – Tries: Robbie Coetzee 2, Harold Vorster and Marnus Schoeman; Conversions: Elton Jantjies 2; Penalty: Elton Jantjies.

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