The Lions produced arguably their best 60-minute spell in Super Rugby history against the Sharks at Ellis Park, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
For 60 minutes the Lions were sublime – as good as any of this season’s Super Rugby title contenders have been.
For 60 minutes the Lions looked every bit a tournament champion. They destroyed a Sharks team that came within a score of victory against four New Zealand teams.
For 60 minutes South Africans were treated to something special.
But it will take 80 minutes to win this tournament because New Zealand’s best teams play for 80 minutes.
The Lions are no longer pretenders to the crown. They’ve advanced their cause since taking 50 points at home against the Hurricanes. They played like a team that had known no month-long Test rugby disruption. They have rhythm, confidence and the skills to match their physicality in the collisions.
The Sharks were made to look like basement dwellers and their form during the season has been more top eight than bottom eight.
Give credit to the Lions. They made the Sharks look impotent in that first hour and those 60 minutes have to be celebrated for what the Lions did, as opposed to what the Sharks didn’t do.
The energy of the Lions is infectious. More of the same please, because it made watching rugby a pleasure and writing about such a performance a privilege more than a chore.
Rarely have the Sharks been reduced to such a sideshow and had the reserves bench not been cleared on the hour, with the Lions leading 37-0, the end score would have been closer to 50. The changes stifled the Lions' fluency and ambition and allowed for a late Sharks cameo.
This must not detract from the first hour, which is the finest the Lions have produced this season. It may even be their most complete hour in a tournament history that for the Lions has for the past two decades been more depressing than dazzling.
Jaco Kriel, replacing the injured Warren Whiteley as captain, was inspirational. He has a Richie McCaw-like presence and there cannot be a greater compliment to the Lions captain.
Kriel leads through work ethic and through work rate. He makes an impact in the tackle, on the ball, over the ball and with ball in hand.
He is understated in his demeanor but there is nothing understated about his impact. He was brilliant leading the Lions in an unbeaten Currie Cup title-winning campaign in 2015 and he has been equally potent in this year's Super Rugby.
The most incredible statistic about Kriel is that it was only a week ago that he finally got to play for the Springboks.
Ditto those several Lions players who made their Springbok debuts against Ireland.
Heyneke Meyer a year ago didn’t see the value in any Lions player when it came to the Springboks' World Cup-winning potential. It explains why Meyer is no longer the national coach and the Lions (this morning) sit top of a Super Rugby table whose top-six positioning is dominated by four of New Zealand’s five teams.
The Lions, with 10 wins from 13 matches, lead the overall standings by a point but it’s a massive point in the context of their development as a side.
The pack, collectively, do the basics with the utmost discipline but all eight can carry the ball and all eight are as comfortable passing the ball as they are making a tackle. It truly is the exception among South Africa’s Super Rugby teams, even if it is the norm for most of the New Zealanders.
The Lions are running hot and halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies are primary to the sizzle.
To borrow from Oliver Twist:
‘Please sir[s], can I have some more …'
Everything that was special in the potential of our rugby came from the Lions and everything that is dire came from the Bulls in their defeat against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
The Stormers, in scoring 57 points against the Rebels in Melbourne, were something in between and the Cheetahs, despite a one-point win against the Force, were more flawed than flawless.
The Kings were predictably exposed in the final quarter against the Highlanders and if their season reflects all that is wrong in South African rugby, then the Lions have shown potentially what could – and should be – right about the SA game.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images