The MTN Lions will compete once again in the Vodacom Super Rugby series in 2014, despite losing their second promotion-relegation match to the Southern Kings 23-18 at Ellis Park on Saturday night.
The Kings won the battle but they lost the war as they scored two late tries to beat the Lions on the night, but fell agonisingly two points short of the aggregate score after losing the first match 26-19 last week in Port Elizabeth.
It meant that they could only make up five of the seven points they were adrift on points difference, allowing the Lions to return from the wilderness and celebrate their return to the southern hemisphere tournament in front of a massive 54 000 fans.
On a night where Lions fans finally ended their long wait for international rugby action, the Kings certainly will feel they didn’t deserve this after having such a wonderful debut season in the competition.
Considering their short preparation time, lack of players and everything else that counted against them, they did exceptionally well and were supported by a rugby-hungry crowd who averaged the third highest attendance in Super Rugby.
In fact, while the Lions will obviously disagree, it will be hard to find many in South Africa who don’t feel sorry for the Kings. It is also difficult not to see a negative in what the result will do to Eastern Cape rugby, especially with a mass exodus of players expected as from next week.
And as cruel as that is, it is also unfair to knock the Lions in any way on their victory. With no hope of quality action all year they have simply knuckled down and played their hearts out.
The bar was set and they met it. They did exactly what was asked of them in trying circumstances, and without a number of players who jumped ship.
LACK OF DISCIPLINE
The Kings may be upset at the ultimate result of the game but on the night they simply have their own discipline to blame, as they lost some good momentum and allowed the Lions to build up a lead that was crucial in the end.
A critical yellow card for a dangerous tackle by Stokkies Hanekom finally allowed the late flurry for the Kings to take the game, but it wasn’t enough to get them over the line and keep them in Super Rugby.
Still, there will be few who won’t applaud the Kings for their bravery as they could easily have rolled over for dead in this game.
From the start they signalled their intentions, and were quickly up 6-0 on the back of some Lions mistakes, with another missed penalty robbing them of a nine-point lead before Elton Jantjies finally put the Lions on the scoreboard.
The match was nowhere near the quality of Super Rugby, and with both teams nervous to make mistakes, the Lions eventually stepped up and started taking control of possession and territory on the half hour.
They were rewarded when Derrick Minnie drove over from close range, and superbly evaded three players to dot down the ball with his right arm on the left side of his body, a try that was confirmed by the television match official.
Scott van Breda slotted his third penalty before the break to give his team a slender 9-8 lead.
The second half saw a lot more intent from both teams, especially with the prospect of their future slipping away and so much at stake.
And it was the Kings who blinked first as the Lions launched a long-range attack from their own half that eventually caught the defence napping and allowed Jaco Kriel an excellent run in for a try to put the Lions 16-9 ahead.
With the nine-point lead in effect being a 16-point buffer, the Lions looked set to see out the time and simply strangle the Kings out of the game, but when Jantjies missed an easy penalty in the 62nd minute and Hanekom was carded in the 67th, it gave the Kings a new lease on life.
They surged towards the Lions' line, and after Shaun Venter went close, Schalk Ferreira barged the ball over to bring his team closer to the Lions.
The Lions kept on coming forward, but some brave play by the Kings secured a turnover in their own half, with SP Marais making the break before Ronnie Cooke drew the defender to put Van Breda away in the corner.
The winger slotted a sideline conversion to put his team five points up, and within sight of a famous win. All they needed was a penalty in the last five minutes and they would have overturned the Lions' points advantage.
But some stern defence from the Lions kept them out, and clever play meant most of those minutes were spent in the Kings’ area of the field.
And with time running out, the Lions won a penalty at the breakdown as the hooter went, sounding their return to Super Rugby and a lifeline for the embattled union.
For the Kings, it was the sound of rugby exile. What the future holds for them is anyone’s guess.
MTN Lions – Tries: Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalty: Jantjies.
Southern Kings – Try: Schalk Ferreira. Conversion: Scott van Breda. Penalties: Van Breda (3).