Lions start defence in style
The MTN Golden Lions started their Absa Currie Cup title defence in impressive fashion, walloping the Toyota Free State Cheetahs 43-20 in their opening match of the 2012 season at Coca Cola Park on Saturday.
It was an inspired performance by the Lions, who had to do without the ball for long periods of time, but made sure they scored when it counted to collect all five points on offer and go to the top of the Currie Cup A section log.
The Lions apparently were looking for inspiration and asked for the trophy to be brought to the changeroom to remind players what they were playing for and what they were defending, and the tactic certainly worked as they produced a performance that will make a lot of teams sit up and take notice.
They may have been the whipping boys of Super Rugby but in the domestic competition where the Springboks are missing, and the pace is noticeably a yard slower, a team like the Lions, who have been playing together for the entire year without disruptions, will always be a favourite in the Currie Cup.
On a night where there were few brave enough to face the cold, the Lions turned on the heat against a Cheetahs side that were expected to run them close.
However, some basic mistakes on defence and the inability of the Cheetahs to compete properly up front against a more motivated and physical Lions side, eventually turned the tables against them.
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The only real highlights for the Cheetahs were the in-form return for Sarel Pretorius, who looked exceptional in his second-half cameo and SA under-20 winger Raymond Rhule’s fantastic debut with a brace of tries to his name.
But the rest of the plaudits belonged to the Lions, who were the first to land a big blow when the Cheetahs players simply stared at a ball in the air and watched as Derrick Minnie grabbed the pill and ran 20 metres to score.
Butch James added to his earlier penalty to extend the lead and the Lions, despite seeing little of the ball, made the lead a telling one as they put together a string of phases before Andries Coetzee found the space to run in untouched for the second try.
Two more penalties to James and one to Riaan Smit brought the teams in at 23-6, and a seemingly close battle looked rather one-sided at the break.
The Cheetahs continued to pile the pressure in the second half, but without too much reward. More than once they dominated play and put up the phases, only to concede the ball through a handling error, poor option or forward pass.
After a Pretorius try was struck down by the new TMO protocols because of a forward pass, the scrumhalf finally found some space to pull one back for his team, passing to Rhule on the outside for the winger to run in for the score and to get the Cheetahs into double figures.
Another attack a few minutes later was sent wide once again to Rhule, who produced a deft turn of speed to beat two players and score a stunning try to bring the Cheetahs within a score of their opposition.
But when it looked as if the comeback may just work, the Lions stepped up their attack, sending the ball to Hendrik Roodt, who powered his way from 10 metres out through a tackle to score.
Another James penalty put the Lions well clear, but they grabbed their bonus point when Ruan Combrinck broke through an ineffective tackle in traffic to run through and score the bonus point try.
Given their trials and tribulations over the past few months, the Lions will savour this victory and know that in the Currie Cup they can be competitive and have made a sounded a clear warning to those wanting their title.
MTN Golden Lions – Tries: Derrick Minnie, Andries Coetzee, Hendrik Roodt, Ruan Combrinck. Conversions: Butch James (3), Guy Cronje (1). Penalties: James (5).
Toyota Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Raymond Rhule (2). Conversions: Riaan Smit (2). Penalties: Smit (2)