The Lions used up all the luck they had to stave off a massive late fightback by the Blues, squeaking out a 39-36 victory in their Vodacom Super Rugby match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The home side racked up an early 20-0 lead, had a numerical advantage over the New Zealand side twice because of two yellow cards and watched a bizarre try decision go their way as they held the Blues at bay late in the game to record their third victory in this year’s tournament.
Marnitz Boshoff kicked 24 points to keep the Lions in front for the entire game, but they were given a scare as the Blues scored five tries in the second half and exposed some ineffectual defence, especially on the wing.
Still, it was a win to be proud of for the Lions, who have surprised many with their enterprising approach and while they were one try shy of the bonus point they would have wanted out of the game, they ensured the Blues would leave South Africa with just the two bonus points they picked up on Saturday and without a victory.
Yet while there will be a lot of celebrating to be done in Johannesburg, the moment that the Blues will question came when the Lions were on the verge of scoring, and an inside pass from captain Warren Whiteley to Deon van Rensburg found its mark, only for the ball to be dislodged on the line by a flying Charles Piutau, who knocked the ball out of Van Rensburg’s hand.
With the score at 23-15 at that stage, it was a crucial call and referee Stuart Berry, along with the television match official Johan Greeff, ruled that the ball had not gone forward from Van Rensburg’s hand, but from Piutau’s and therefore followed the ball to where Coenie van Wyk scored, awarding the try despite howls of displeasure from the Blues players.
It crucially gave the Lions some breathing space and after the game will be debated at length as it could be seen as the difference between the home side winning and losing.
Still, the Lions managed to show they had enough nerve to close out the game, especially as they were given a massive lead – as the Blues have started slowly in every game this season.
It was 20 minutes into the game before we saw the first scoring points, as both sides struggled to get momentum and the Lions’ defence held firm against a Blues side that probed at will.
The nuggety scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, whose stature is growing with every game in these parts, found a gap around a ruck and stretched his arm over to score.
Boshoff added a drop goal a few minutes later to give the hosts a 10-0 lead and despite looking in trouble more than once in the half, the Lions were the only ones finding ways to cross the line as a quick tap and go found its way down the backline and a switch in direction gave debutant Courtnall Skosan his first Super Rugby try on the break.
The Blues at that stage were down to 14 men as Charlie Faumuina was dispatched for repeated infringements at the maul.
Boshoff added a drop goal early in the second half before Chris Noakes finally got the Blues onto the board in the 47th minute, this time again when they were back down to 14 with Tom Donnelly penalised for a swinging arm at the ruck.
Boshoff made the score 23-3 with another penalty before the complexion of the game shifted completely and the Blues started to find massive holes in the Lions defence to claw their way back into the game.
Piutau scored after Noakes sent a skip pass down the line to beat the defenders and another breakout from their own line saw Piutau kick ahead and gather before offloading to Bryn Hall for a try with his first touch of the game.
Then came the controversy, briefly stopping the Blues' momentum and keeping the Lions ahead on the scoreboard, but it wasn’t long before they found a gap, surged downfield again and sent the ball to Frank Halai, and the big winger bumped off an ineffectual tackle from Skosan to score with ease.
Boshoff edged the Lions ahead again, taking the score to 33-22 with a further penalty before George Moala easily brushed off Skosan to give the Blues their bonus point try.
With just four points in it, the Lions managed to work two penalties, and took the safe options again to take their lead up to 10 points again through Boshoff’s boot.
But a final surge and a beautiful run by Benji Marshall made it a three point game again, with the Lions holding out in the end to win with a sigh of relief, and a lot of luck.
Lions - Tries: Courtnall Skosan, Francois de Klerk, Coenie Van Wyk. Conversions: Marnitz Boshoff (3).Drop Goals: Boshoff (2). Penalties: Boshoff (4).
Blues- Tries: Charles Piutau, Bryn Hall, Frank Halai, George Moala, Benji Marshall. Conversion: Chris Noakes (2). Penalty: Chris Noakes.