There were moments when they threatened to self-destruct, but the MTN Lions showed enough resolve and purpose to record a 37-32 victory over the Melbourne Rebels at Coca-Cola Park on Saturday and give themselves a much-needed victory.
But after opening with some sparkling rugby to rack up a 24-0 lead, the Lions allowed the Rebels to come back at them and dominate the opening minutes of the second half, falling behind 29-27 before a final rally saw them home to the victory.
It was the best of both worlds for the Lions. At times they were exceptionally passionate and reminiscent of their Currie Cup win of last year with backs Waylon Murray and Lionel Mapoe running with a freedom that has seldom been seen at the stadium this year.
And then there were times when they lapsed into the same mistakes, giving away a plethora of penalties and allowing the opposition to score almost at will.
Still, given the morasse of problems at the franchise at the moment, this victory will be like manna from heaven and temporarily take the focus off the bigger challenges that await.
The Rebels though, showed that while they certainly are competitive at times, they aren’t likely to have enough firepower to trouble the Stormers in Cape Town next weekend as they head for their final game.
In a match that could certainly deserve the old cliché of being one “of two halves” it eventually took a late try by Jaco Kriel and an excellent sideline conversion by Elton Jantjies to put his team ahead, even though a last-minute penalty made the scoreline look a lot more respectable.
It was almost hard to believe after an opening half hour that was simply all Lions, followed by the next half hour which was literally all Rebels before the final flurry settled the result.
While the victory was much needed, it won’t change the Lions' position at the bottom of the Vodacom Super Rugby log, as they still linger two points behind the 14th-placed Force, with a visit to Loftus Versfeld their last encounter of the season.
SPREAD THE BALL
It was clear in the opening minutes that this wasn’t likely to be a low-scoring game, as both sides immediately signaled their intentions to spread the ball they received.
But it was the Lions who drew first blood, taking a counter attack wide to a flying Mapoe, who linked in a wonderful one-two with Murray to give them their opening try only a few minutes into the game.
It took another eight minutes for them to add to their opening score as they strung together 13 phases, with the ball heading wide to Derick Minnie, who bounced off one defender to score the second try.
A Jantjies penalty extended the lead and five minutes from the break, a well-positioned lineout drive opened up enough space for Minnie to shoot out the side and score untouched.
As the team headed into halftime, it seemed the Lions were going to hold the Rebels scoreless, but the visitors struck just before the break as Ged Robinson went over from close range.
The second half started more with a bang than a whimper for the Rebels as lock Hugh Pyle went over for two unanswered tries early on to bring his team back within striking range of the Lions.
A penalty apiece for both Jantjies and Julian Huxley kept the scoreboard ticking but the Rebels went in front in controversial fashion as James Hilgendorf charged down a poor clearance from Elton Jantjies and claimed the try.
The TMO awarded the try, although some angles of the replay looked as if the ball was knocked on, with the only reasonable explanation being downward pressure as Hilgendorf tried to dot down.
Still, while the crowd wasn’t happy, it did serve to wake the Lions up, as they rediscovered their voice and even though Huxley added three more with a penalty shortly afterwards, the home side was not out of the game yet.
Eventually it took a magical blindside break by Michael Bondesio to set up Jaco Kriel for the try in the corner, and Jantjies' exceptional conversion reclaimed the lead.
The Lions may have struggled to win all season, but desperation and character won this one for them, and given their off-field troubles, the victory would feel like the best gift they ever could have received just before the end of the season.
MTN Lions – Tries: Waylon Murray, Derrick Minnie (2), Jaco Kriel. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (4). Penalties: Jantjies (3).
Rebels – Tries: Ged Robinson, Hugh Pyle (2), James Hilgendorf. Conversions: Julian Huxley (4). Penalties: Huxley (2).