The Lions beat the Chiefs 36-32 on Saturday to record their first-ever win in Hamilton. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The result as well as the quality of performance will go down in history. The Lions impressed with their blend of power and guile. As the contest raced towards a climax, the Johannesburg-based franchise showed its grit and determination.
On Saturday in Hamilton, the Lions showed that they are the real deal.
You could almost have forgiven them for letting it slip in those final minutes. The Lions played with such passion and precision for 70 minutes, such fantastic intent, that it seemed as if they had already proved their point.
They came into this fixture as underdogs, and were expected to fade in the final quarter against a Chiefs side that specialises in second-half surges. But on this occasion, the Lions proved more than equal to the challenge. They maintained their attacking effort in the second half, and then showed the necessary defensive resolve when it mattered most.
Damian McKenzie scored 17 points for the Chiefs, and had a chance to add to that tally in the 77th minute. The Lions had botched a clearance attempt, and handed the hosts a scrum. The Chiefs launched from that set piece, and when the ball flew to McKenzie, the crowd held its breath to see if the quicksilver fullback would breach the defence and propel the Waikato side into the lead.
The Lions, however, read the play and rushed to meet McKenzie. The fullback was held up off the ground, and the Lions were awarded a scrum.
But there was to be more drama in the ensuing seconds, and a further test of the Lions' character. The Chiefs kicked a penalty to touch and set up a rolling maul. The Lions impeded, and so the hosts set the lineout again.
On the second attempt, the Lions forwards managed to sack the maul legally. The Chiefs then made a mistake under pressure, and conceded possession. Game over. History made.
The Lions will take a lot of heart from this performance. Their scrum was in fearsome form. It was thanks to their efforts at this set piece that they were able to generate momentum in the first half.
The backs, particularly Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies, obliged with some outstanding touches and the finishing was sublime. And yet the Lions backs would not have enjoyed such attacking success had their forwards failed to fire.
The Lions led 19-11 at the break. They extended that lead to 24-11 in the 47th minute when Courtnall Skosan scored a try. It was an important strike, as the Chiefs were down a man at that stage with replacement prop Mitchell Graham in the sin bin.
As expected, the Chiefs hit back in the final 30 minutes. McKenzie finished a sweeping attacking move in the left-hand corner, and then completed a conversion from the touchline to reduce the deficit to six points.
Crucially, the Lions didn’t slip into a defensive mindset. They scored two further tries through captain Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck. Thanks to yet another successful goal kick by Jantjies, who scored 16 points on the day, the Lions moved into a 36-25 lead with 13 minutes to play.
The Chiefs continued to press, and breached the Lions defence in the 71st minute through replacement scrumhalf Brad Weber. But it was in the final five minutes where the Lions showed superior determination and precision to secure the result.
The performance by the Lions will serve as a statement. They will persist with their belligerent and bold brand of play. If they can improve on their defence, they may score further wins against New Zealand opposition in this year’s competition.
Chiefs – Tries: Tom Sanders, Damian McKenzie, James Lowe, Brad Weber. Conversions: McKenzie (3). Penalties: McKenzie (2).
Lions – Tries: Malcolm Marx, Courtnall Skosan, Warren Whiteley, Ruan Combrinck. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (4).
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Latu Vaeno, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Allardice, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Mitchell Graham, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Glen Fisiiahi.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Fabian Booysen, 21 Jaco van der Walt, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images