Lions’ fightback stuns Highlanders

The Lions overturned a 17-point half-time deficit to run out 28-23 victors over the Highlanders at Ellis Park on Saturday. BRENTON CHELIN reports.

The result sees the Lions move level with the Crusaders on 31 log points, just a three points outside of the play-off places. The Lions had trailed at half-time in seven of their last eight matches, and gone on to win six of them. Saturday's stunning fightback made it seven.

Victory seemed a long way off at half-time as the Highlanders dominated proceedings in the opening 40 minutes to open up a deserved lead.

The visitors were superb on turnover ball and made the Lions pay for failing to protect their own possession. The Lions had the ascendancy at the scrums, while their dominance at the lineouts was undermined by the visitors use of the quick throw.

They also weren't helped by their own high-error rate, which was in stark contrast to the ruthless precision of the Highlanders. Lima Sopoaga was influential from flyhalf, while the Highlanders' outside backs looked dangerous whenever the ball came their way.

Malakai Fekitoa's try at the end of the first half, which came with the Lions on attack, meant the hosts went into the break trailing 20-3. It would take a special second-half showing to overturn such a deficit.

The Lions had started the match well, with Marnitz Boshoff slotting an early penalty to hand them the lead after the Highlanders had an early try ruled out for obstruction. However, the Highlanders were enjoying dominance at the breakdown and edged ahead courtesy of a penalty and drop goal from Sopoaga.

The Highlanders used their dominance in territory and possession to work an opening for Gareth Evans, who went over in the corner. Sopoaga's breakaway try on the hooter left the Lions reeling.

Johan Ackermann was quick to change things at the start of the second half, introducing Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies into proceedings. The move proved an inspired choice as the Lions came roaring back into the contest.

Courtnall Skosan went over following some great interplay involving the impressive Harold Vorster and Ruan Combrinck. Very little had been seen of the Lions' rolling maul in the first stanza, but they used it to good effect in the second to wrestle control of the match away from the Highlanders.

Jaco Kriel was the first to profit, going over to put the Lions within striking distance. Spurred on by this, Warren Whiteley opted to kick for the corner with the Lions trailing by six and a quarter of the match remaining.

The throw from Akker van der Merwe failed to go to hand, but the Lions didn't panic. They instead used their backs to work the Highlanders defence from side to side, before Vorster snuck over for a try of his own.

Jantjies failed with the conversion to hand them the lead, but made no mistake with a penalty 10 minutes later. Another penalty with five minutes remaining moved the Lions five points clear and they held on to complete a memorable comeback.

Lions – Tries: Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel, Harold Vorster. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Marnitz Boshoff, Jantjies (2).
Highlanders – Tries: Gareth Evans, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalty: Sopoaga. Drop goals: Sopoaga, Ben Smith.

Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Harold Vorster, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruaan Lerm, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Howard Mnisi.

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c). 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Elliott Dixon, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.

Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images