/Aargh! Lions left lamenting dopey start

Aargh! Lions left lamenting dopey start

2020-02-28 13:27

Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – A
far from ideal beginning to their safari, albeit with an hour or so of flickering
promise to boast.

The Lions,
regular title-chasers in Super Rugby up to a couple of years ago, began their
four-match tour of Australasia in the worst possible fashion with defeat to the
previously winless and rock-bottom Waratahs
at Parramatta on Friday.

Not only
that, but concession of a further try to the hosts three minutes from the end
of normal time deprived them even of the consolation of a losing bonus point –
while the ‘Tahs earned a full house in the 29-17 outcome from a loose, almost
basketball-like encounter.

It left a
nasty suspicion that the Lions, now one from four in 2020, will find the going
routinely tough for the remainder of the trek.

Next up will
be the Rebels in Melbourne on Saturday week, and Dave Wessels’s charges have just
come off a really heartening, upset victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

Failure to
get back in the win column there, and the Jo’burgers will be difficult to back even
by their more ardent fans when they shift to New Zealand for two further
tussles (Blues, Highlanders).

“We can only
get better next week … we need to take ownership better with ball in hand … (it’s)
a great bunch of boys, willing to learn,” was the still reasonably bullish
verdict afterwards of Lions skipper Elton Jantjies.

The flyhalf
was one the better visiting performers in the setback, with some silky touches both
out of hand and from his feet; there was less consistency outside of his channel,
though, as Lions back-liners were sometimes too easily bundled into touch or
were guilty of probing blind alleys.

Almost
indisputably, the worst damage was done to the Lions in the opening quarter: it
was almost a case of one-foot-on-the-plane-syndrome in reverse, as they looked
sluggish and disjointed defensively before finding better structural integrity
as the game developed.

But by then
they were playing serious, eventually insurmountable catch-up: they had leaked
three tries in that awkward start and 3-19 is a difficult deficit to make up.

The period
included a costly yellow card for a hot-tempered indiscretion by aggressive
young front lock Ruben Schoeman, which is also a bad way to set a tone for an
overseas tour.

Although the
general, attacking spirit of both outfits could not really be questioned, the
game left the distinct impression that it was one between teams who will stay
in the nether regions of this year’s competition – there was a “Hail Mary”
feeling to some of the passing and option-taking on an evening where conditions
were pretty decent for a spectacle.

Although
their own fetcher Marnus Schoeman put in a willing shift – including dotting
both their tries – the Lions were too frequently outsmarted on the deck, where
Wallaby stalwart Michael Hooper (also with a high tackle count) was
characteristically prominent, and the turnover department was bossed by the
‘Tahs.

Kurtley
Beale also showed off his known expertise from the last line of defence,
sometimes pulling vital strings in closer areas than that, and the television
commentators reminded that he had made his debut in Super Rugby against the
same opponents as far back as 2007.

This was a
sobering turnaround for a Lions side who had rousingly won their last away date
against the Waratahs 29-0 in 2018.

But perhaps
it was also not entirely unexpected, as coach Ivan van Rooyen is working with
such a rejigged, considerably less experienced group of players this year.

A glance at
the starting line-up from that memorable outcome two years back indicates just
how many players have moved elsewhere subsequently from the Big Smoke: Ruan
Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Madosh Tambwe, Franco Mostert, Kwagga
Smith, Andries Ferreira, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx (at least only for this season)
and Jacques van Rooyen.

That is
two-thirds, and more, of a once pretty formidable team.

A revisit to
those days seems some way off …

*Follow
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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