The MTN Lions played out of their skins to take a massive first step towards regaining their Vodacom Super Rugby status as they scored a deserved 26-19 win over the Southern Kings in the first match of the promotion-relegation series at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Friday night.
However, the Lions may kick themselves for conceding a try with 11 minutes to go that saw the Kings claw their way back to within seven points, thus netting them a crucial bonus point.
With the team that stays in Super Rugby next year to be decided on log points garnered across the two matches, that means the Kings can still retain their status if they go to Johannesburg next Saturday and win by more than seven.
Such a result is highly unlikely though unless the Kings find a miracle cure to the indiscipline and lack of composure at crucial moments that cost them so dearly in a game that they could easily have won otherwise.
Although the Lions were clearly hungry and played well, the Kings did to some extent conspire against themselves with the way they conceded penalties that when they didn’t cost them points, cost them momentum.
While the Lions looked the better team across the 80 minutes, the Kings were also unlucky as the game-changing score was an intercept try just before halftime and it also looked as though refereeing mistakes contributed to the Lions’ second try that effectively wrapped up the match in the second half.
Let’s talk about the second try first. Two minutes before the Lions scored through Stokkies Hanekom to take a telling 12-point lead with less than a quarter of the match left, the Kings had been on the attack, about three metres from the Lions’ tryline, when the ball was shoveled back from a loose scrum and dotted down by the Lions.
However, referee Jaco Peyper ruled that it had been kicked forward by the Kings, which the television replay showed quite clearly that it hadn’t been.
Unfortunately Peyper didn’t see the replay, so instead of awarding the Kings the five-metre scrum, as he should have done, he allowed the Lions to escape from their defensive position with a 22 metre drop-out. We have technology, so why not use it?
And from that drop-out the Lions played their way into the Kings territory, where they did well to poach the ball from the Kings lineout throw.
A pass from flyhalf Elton Jantjies through the tackle put Hanekom away for what was his second try, but on the television evidence that pass looked palpably forward. The technology that was available was again not used.
The Kings fought back with the Sykes try off a driving maul when the Lions had been reduced to 14 men after the yellow carding of Dylan des Fountain to make it a close game in the last 11 minutes, but the Lions always looked like holding on for the win.
Overall the Kings only had themselves to blame for lacking composure and conceding way too many penalties through indiscipline, but it was still an injustice that they should lose out to refereeing mistakes in a game that could cost them their place in Super Rugby next season.
Of course no-one else can be blamed for the intercept try, but it was a cruel blow as it came at a crucial juncture of the match and was a game-changer.
The hosts were leading 14-12 three minutes before the break and were dominating the territory battle that is so important in a match of this nature. And they were building up another attack as they sought the points that would give them a comfortable buffer at halftime.
But as they built up to the left Hanekom pounced on a pass well inside his own half and with no Lions players in front of him, he ran two thirds of the length of the field to score near the posts. What had looked like being a Kings advantage was suddenly a five point deficit as the Lions reached the halfway point 19-14 ahead.
A score so close to the break is always of huge psychological significance, in a negative sense for the team that concedes it and in a positive way for the side that scores it. And while it seemed to knock the confidence of the Kings, it emboldened the Lions, who overturned their territorial deficit in the second half.
The Lions pack set up the win with a strong showing at the breakdowns, where the Kings were turned over too often for them to sustain the pressure that was needed in order for them to force points.
The Kings started off showing massive physical intent as Wimpie van der Walt put in a huge tackle from the kick-off that dispossessed the Lions, and flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, who limped off in the second half, kicked the points to make it 3-0 after just two minutes.
Thereafter though there was a slew of penalties conceded, and after 17 minutes Jantjies had kicked four penalties to make it 12-6.
Catrakilis then set up a good try to Marcello Sampson with a well targeted cross-kick and that took the Kings to within one point of the Lions (12-11) nearing the half hour mark, and Catrakilis reclaimed the lead for the Kings with a penalty soon after that (14-12).
Both teams eschewed kickable penalties at stages of the game – the Kings when they tried to set up driving mauls from the lineout, and the Lions when they opted for a series of scrums that were well defended by the Kings in the second half.
Injuries played a part in disrupting both teams. The Lions lost three players before halftime, while Catrakilis, the Kings’ potential match-winner, left the field in the second half holding his wrist.
If the injury is serious enough to rule him out of next week’s game in Johannesburg, the Lions might as well start their preparations for next year’s Super Rugby campaign.
Considering they haven’t played Super Rugby this year and thus shouldn’t have been used to the intensity, the Lions deserve immense credit for the fortitude they showed in the face of the massive physical onslaught from the Kings in the first half.
Southern Kings – Tries: Marcello Sampson, Steven Sykes. Penalties: Demetri Catrakilis (3).
MTN Lions – Tries: Stokkies Hanekom (2). Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (4).