An estimated Fourty five thousand spectators arrived at Coca-Cola Park on Friday evening to watch the first Super Rugby match to be played in Gauteng in 2011.
Fears that the inclement weather would keep the spectators away was unfounded, despite the fact that the game started in a slight drizzle.
As predicted, the Lions started at 200 kilometers per hour, and after a deep kick-off were immediately rewarded with a penalty in the 2nd minute when the Bulls forwards infringed at the ensuing ruck.
Jantjies took a shot at goal from in front only to see it rebound off the upright.
The Lions pivot was quickest to react and get to the ball, but the support was too slow and the Bulls forced a turn-over.
This was to be the last time the Lions would kick a penalty at posts for nearly 70 minutes.
From this stage on the Bulls steadily took control of the game and kept the home side pinned in their own half for a long stretch of the 1st half.
On 12 minutes, the Bulls were rewarded for enterprising play that stretched the Lions from one side of the field to the other, and eventually saw Zane Kirchner cross the Lions try line 5 metres from the far corner.
Steyn was unsuccessful with the conversion.
5 minutes later, Janties tried a cheeky chip kick that went horribly wrong. Gerhard vd Heever gather the ball at pace on his own 10m line in centre field and proceeded to carve his way through the Lions defence to score a magnificent try under the poles, that was converted by Steyn.
Bulls up 12 – 0 inside 15 minutes.
By now the Bulls were controlling the flow and tempo of the game, and consequently enjoyed a distinct advantage in both the terittory and possession stakes.
On the rare occasion when the Lions ventured into the Bulls half, their decision making and execution were poor.
Consequently the Bulls applied constant pressure, thus forcing the Lions into errors, which inevitably led to penalties, which Steyn never looked like missing, and after half an hour of play the home side were 18 points down.
The young Lions side gathered themselves though and slowly worked their way back into the Bulls half, and after a few minutes of sustained pressure Waylon Murray crashed over for a well worked try. Jantjies failed with the conversion, and with 5 minutes to play in the half, the Lions trailed 5 – 18.
Immediately from the re-start the Bulls moved up field with a sweeping move across the field and again put the already hard worked Lions defence under pressure who showed good resolve to force a penalty at the ruck.
Shortly there-after the Lions knocked-on on their own 22 from what appeared to be a forward pass, and immediately put themselves under pressure at scrum time.
Marius Jonker had been penalising the Lions scrum all game, and this time was to be no exception. Steyn coolly slotted the penalty from the Lions 22m line, and 22 metres in from the near side touch line.
38 minutes played, Bulls up 21 – 5.
But the half wasn’t over, again the Bulls forced their way upfield, and again the Lions gave away an easily kickable penalty, midfield and 28m out.
Steyn knocked it over and the Bulls went into the change rooms 24 – 5 up.
At this stage the Jo’burg faithful must have been having fellings of de-javu, but little did they know that the Bulls had scored their last points of the evening.
After the re-start, the Lions started to apply pressure, but again some strange tactical calls cost them certain points, with Vermaak even to choosing to tap a penalty right under the Bulls posts.
Mitchell decided to start changing his players quite early in the second half, with Martin Bezuidenhout coming on for debutant Maku.
It was perhaps a moment of inspiration, because not too long after coming on (in the 57th minute) he scored the second of the Lions ties, set up after a lovely run from the young New Zealander James Kamana who had come on at Fullback in the first half for the injured Jaco Taute, and some good backline handling across the width of the field.
The resultant conversion 10m in from the far touch line was slotted by Jantjies, and suddenly it was game on.
From the ensuing kick off the Lions again surged up field, with Forwards and Backs combining well with slick handling, and eventually forced the ball over the Bulls try line at a ruck.
Marius Jonker was in no position to make the call and referred it to Johann Meuwesen in the TMO booth.
Replays shown on the big screen were far from convincing that a try had been scored, and the Lions players chose not retreat to the halfway line during the review. But the TMO ruled in the Lions favour and the try was given, eventually being credited to Warren Whitely.
Jantjies was unsuccessful with the kick, but the Lions were now within 7 points, and the Joburg faithful were baying for a famous victory.
Again from the kick off the Lions immediately put the Bulls defence under pressure, and in the 69th minute the Bulls were again penalised for going off their feet at the breakdown.
Inexplicably, after shunning the easier kicks earlier in the half the Lions captain invited Jantjies to have a shot at goal from a position just 6 metres in from the near touchline. Not the easiest of kicks for a left footed player.
But the youngster was up to the task and calmly slooted the kick to bring the home team within 4 points of the Bulls.
The substitutions were coming thick and fast now, and perhaps what was to prove to be the most significant was Rory Kockott coming on in place of Jano Vermaak at Scrum Half for the Lions.
However, it was one of the earlier substitutes, Martin Bezuidenhout that would prove to be somewhat of a villain for the Lions.
Following the kick off and some arial ping pong, Bezuidenhout chased a ball upfield and was adjudged to have late tackled the Bulls Fulback Kirchner after he cleared to touch.
In all honesty it was a 50/50 call, but I think that Jonker probably got it right and after consultation with the assistant referree awarded the Bulls a penaly just inside the Lions half, on the 15m line.
Unlike Jantjies, this kick was well within Steyn’s range and he had no hesitation in pointing to the poles. The resultant strike was good, but for once Steyn’s accuracy deserted him, and the ball sailed wide of the left hand upright.
The Lions were now desperate for the first Super Rugby win since May 2009, and again swept upfield attempting to go for the win and a bonus point try.
But it was not to be. In the 75th minute after sustained play that saw the Lions attacking lines somewhat dis-organised they paid dearly for another basic error as Kockett knocked-on in front of the try line with little pressure on him.
From the resultant scrum the Bulls did what the Bulls do best. Closed the game out. They kicked down field and forced several penalties from Lions errors. The Lions defence held out though, and eventually the Bulls chose to kick the ball dead after the final hooter sounded.
Final Score: Lions 20 – Bulls 24.
The Lions supporters will take a great deal of heart from the second half performance, but the fact remains there were too many basic errors and dubious tacktical decisions.
At the after match press conference the Bulls contingent implied that they were happy to take the 4 points home from an away game, but in reality they cannot have been happy with the second half performance where they were outplayed by 15 points to nil.
John Mitchell on the other hand was scathing in his condemnation of some of the Lions players who failed to stick to the game plan.
Mitchell was adamant that this was a game the Lions could have, and should have won.
When asked why the Lions shunned so many kickable points he (Mitchell) insisted that this year’s Super Rugby competition will not be won by the teams that just kick penalties.
A rather strange statement when you’ve just lost by less than the margin of two very kickable penalties that your team chose not to kick at goal.
The Bulls (and no doubt Pieter de Villiers) will be happy with the fact that Fourie du Preez came through a bruising encounter seemingly unscathed, but Frans Ludeke will be somewhat worried about Gary Botha who was taken off with a suspected collar bone injury.
On the Lions side the only injury concern is to Jaco Taute who received a blow to the face and has some damage to his nose and teeth.
Positives to come out of the game for both teams was the general quality of ball handling shown in greasy and wet conditions, with some slick passing showing that the ball will always beat the man.
For the Lions, the running lines of James Kamana were a revelation, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this young man in weeks to come, while Doppies le Grance and Waylon Murray contained the Bulls well last night, with Murray particularly impressing both on defence and attack, where he actively went looking for work.
He (Murray) seems to have a renewed zest for the game, and is fast re-approaching the level of play that first gianed him a national call up.
Wayne Taylor and John Mitchell must also have been satisfied with the fitness levels and intensity shown by the Lions squad.
There’s a new vibe in downtown Johannesburg, with lots of on field entertainment before the game, and a new air of confidence surrounding Coca Cola Park.
The Lions supporters, and I’m sure the coaching staff and management will be starting to believe that this team will not do too badly in this years competition, and based on this performance I’m sure there will be a lot of eyes watching the Lions closely in upcoming weeks.
Whether they realistically have a chance of making the playoff’s may become evident this coming Saturday when the Lions travel to Newlands to take on the Stormers.
It’s a tall order playing the winners and runners up of last years competition on consecutive weekends, but I’m sure it’s a challenge that John Mitchell will relish, and one that the Lions players will meet head on.