The MTN Golden Lions’ reign as Absa Currie Cup champions came to a cruel and dramatic end at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg on Saturday night as a driving maul try on the hooter clinched DHL Western Province a 21-16 semifinal win.
The Lions will feel they did everything but win as they were the better team for much of the way and put WP under sustained pressure, but they failed to capitalise on their many opportunities and were left to rue the mistakes late in the game that could be said to have grabbed them defeat from the jaws of victory.
Certainly it looked as if the Lions were on their way to their second consecutive final when flyhalf Elton Jantjies made up for some horrendous early misses by kicking an angled pressure penalty three minutes from time that put his side two points ahead. But then came a mistake when they failed to clear their line from the restart, and WP pulled out the most tried and trusted try-scoring method by mauling their way 17 metres for the match-clinching try off the final move of the game.
There was plenty to enthuse about from the WP attacking play in the second half, with the introduction of Joe Pietersen at fullback and Louis Schreuder as the flyhalf in the last quarter making a dramatic difference to a game that they were losing at that point, but in the end it was that lineout maul that lost the Lions the game.
Jaco Taute, destined to play for the Stormers in Super Rugby next year, will kick himself for his role in his team’s demise. He kicked directly into touch in trying to clear the Lions’ red zone and was adjudged by referee Marius Jonker to have done so after the ball was carried back into his 22.
So instead of the Lions getting away from the 22 metre area, they ended up having to defend as Scarra Ntubeni fed the lineout and WP drove inexorably to the line, where No 8 Duane Vermeulen eventually touched down.
It was a sad way for the Lions to end competitive rugby for the season as they head into the no-man’s land that they will find themselves in next season when they watch the Super Rugby tournament played without them.
Their reign as champions had not been a bad one, and by ending second on the final log you could probably say they deserve to be in the final.
They were certainly the better team for most of Saturday night’s game, but were held back by Jantjies’s goalkicking walkabout in the first half. He missed three kicks at goal and Ruan Combrinck one as the Lions left 12 points on the table that could have made all the difference to the final result.
Deon Helberg will also take a while to forget his mistake when he failed to make contact with the ball when he chased his own kick ahead after a counter-attack from near his own line. Helberg looked clear and for all the world a likely try scorer if he just got boot to the ball as there was no-one in front of him, but instead it bobbled off the side of his boot and WP rescued the situation.
But full marks to WP for their refusal to lose, something that will hold them in good stead for next week’s final at Kings Park. The Sharks will start as overwhelming favourites at home, there is no doubt about that, and they produced the impressive performance of the weekend with their annihilation of the Bulls in another wet weather semifinal.
But the way WP were able to get themselves out of jail on Saturday night will leave them going to Durban feeling that they won a game they were destined to lose, and the momentum they finished the match with will pull them together in this build-up week.
The first half was mostly forgettable, with first-choice flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis getting the early lead for his team with a penalty after three minutes and then edging them ahead again after half an hour with a second penalty to cancel an earlier whopper from well within his own half by Combrinck after 17 minutes.
The Lions had started playing quick tempo rugby and employed interesting variations in depth and angles of attack to break down the highly rated WP defence, but they didn’t make the needed impression on the scoreboard, with Jantjies’s failure to raise the flags costing them dearly and WP going to the break with a 6-3 lead.
After halftime it was definitely the Lions with the early momentum, and a Jantjies penalty drew the scores level before the home side created an excellent try that was rounded off by another Stormers and WP player for next year, lock Michael Rhodes.
With next year’s Super Rugby in mind, there was certainly plenty to enthuse about for the Stormers, with the irrepressible Bryan Habana the best back on the field but not that far ahead of Juan de Jongh, who created problems for the Lions defensive system. Damian de Allende, the youngster who came on towards the end, also showed some good touches and will have gained from the experience, as will have Schreuder in his new position of pivot.
His distribution and decision making played a part in WP’s great rally as they recovered from the 13-6 deficit to create an excellent try to Joe Pietersen which would have leveled the scores with seven minutes to go had the replacement fullback not missed the conversion.
MTN Lions – Try: Michael Rhodes. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalties: Ruan Combrinck, Jantjies (2).
DHL Stormers – Tries: Joe Pietersen, Duane Vermeulen. Conversion: Pietersen. Penalties: Demetri Catrakilis (2), Pietersen.