Playing without their head coach Swys de Bruin who had returned to South Africa hours before the kick-off of the Lions against the Chiefs in Hamilton, the South African franchise were irresistible in a first half that brought back visions of the Lions at their very best.
They beat the Chiefs 23-16 after a 20-0 lead at halftime was threatened with the home side fighting back to 20-17 before a very late drop by Elton Jantjies gave them some breathing space with less than three minutes play left.
However, the Lions inability to score tries until late in the first dominant first half and nothing after the break, together with the Chiefs poor handling and first phase problems, didn’t make it a match to remember.
♦ A seemingly rejuvenated Lions side ran from the outset with every ball that they won of which there was plenty. After ten minutes the Chiefs had only had a turnover on defence that took them deep into Lion’s territory.
The Lions ran well, supported well but, above all else, their first phases were outstanding. Their lineouts with especially Marvin Orie dominant were exemplary, they scrummed the Chiefs into conceding penalties, had them on the backfoot on their own ball while the Lions provided good ball to their backs where Giovanni Lombard at flyhalf and Jantjies, who surprisingly started at centre, lead the charge with good, quick hands.
It took them ten minutes, however, to get their first points from a scrum penalty, of which there were a view because of their dominance where Carlu Sadie at tighthead was outstanding.
Despite the sprightly start and the many passes and much running, the Lions failed to capitalise and had only two (late) tries in the first half to show for their efforts.
♦ Lombard, who was substituted with what looked like a knee injury just after halftime, had a good game on attack and did his bit on defence but gave the opposition some counter-attack opportunities by not finding touch with his first three line kicks.
But the potential is there, especially in the Lions set-up where Lombard attacked and handled with confidence. Work on the finer aspects are needed
Added to their attacking intent the reunion of Warren Whiteley and flankers Kwagga Smith and Kyle Brink brought a new dimension to the team. They were outstanding on attack and defence and Brink in particular turned over good possession for his side.
The little grubber that Whiteley put through down the touchline for Aphiwe Dyanti just before halftime for the winger to score under the posts was one of the match highlights.
That made the turnaround score 20-0 to the visitors.
The Lions were not as dominant after halftime. In the third quarter they had turned around twice as much possession than in the whole first half and were territorially dominated by the Chiefs who in the 61st minute scored a try from a scrum close to the left touchline.
The Lions then dominated a scrum on the Chiefs put-in, for some reason Ross Crone ran to the field side and his opposite number Brad Weber and 3o metres before the ball was played to the right where Sean Wainui scored after good handling and options.
Three minutes later, tighthead Nepo Lualala went over from a ruck after good running by the backs, and suddenly the score had changed to 20-10.
The tiring Lion had started falling off their tackles, and the Chiefs simply had more room to move after a first half of great intent on defence by the Lions.
Four minutes before the end Tamua Manu scored a try converted by Marty McKenzie to convert and provide a tense finish at 23-17 after Jantjies’ late drop goal.
Chiefs – Tries: Sean Wainui, Nepo Laulala, Tumua Manu. Conversion: Marty McKenzie.
Lions – Tries: Carlu Sadie, Aphiwe Dyantyi. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (2). Drop goal: Jantjies.