Lions roar at last

The Lions claimed their first win of the Absa Currie Cup season when they beat the Valke 32-19 at Ellis Park on Friday night.

Eugene Eloff’s side ran in three first-half tries to lead 22-13, including a critical score by fullback Louis Ludik just seconds before the break. The Lions struggled to get going in the second half, but Ludik scored his second two minutes before full-time to seal the win.

This was never going to be a classic. Both teams looked to keep it tight in the early part of the first half, building a foundation for the backs to run the ball or more often than not, punt it for territory gains.

Valke coach John Williams hinted pre-match that he would look to play the game in the Lions half and flyhalf Louis Strydom’s boot ensured they did just that. Strydom and fullback Riaan Viljoen turned the Lions forwards on numerous occasions throughout the game with monsterous kicks.

Eloff will be pleased with the win but he will admit his team were far from spectacular. The Johannesburg based side were generally poor and relied heavily on individuals to secure the win.

A Man-of-the-Match performance by Ludik and an outstanding showing from stand-in captain Ernst Joubert ensured the pressure on the team was relieved. At least temporarily.

The Lions tested the Valke pack in the opening exchanges by mauling strongly from a line-out on the visitors’ 10m line, and this set the tone for the rest of the game.

The Valke showed good intensity at the rucks, cleaning efficiently and not giving the Lions loose trio a chance to get near the ball. Both sets of forwards set out to slow down the ball at the breakdown. This stifled both teams backlines and they never got going.

Twenty-year-old Lions flyhalf Jody Rose will be disappointed with his overall contribution. Far too often he stood too flat, allowing the Valke defence to close his space quickly. Perhaps this was part of Eloff’s gameplan, knowing that the Valke employed the ‘rush’ defensive system. But the young flyhalf, in the side for his older brother Earl, never read the script and struggled.

Rose though did have a hand in creating their first try. With the Valke dominating possession the Lions forced a turnover in the opposition 22m area, from which impressive scrumhalf Jano Vermaak cleared quickly, exposing the scattered defence. Rose collected and put outside centre Jaco Pretorius clean through to score under the posts. Winger Mark Harris converted to give his side a 7-3 lead.

The Lions struck again swiftly, Wylie Human charging down a clearance attempt by Strydom on the 5m line and scoring his 31st Currie Cup try to make it 12-3. Harris’s conversion attempt struck the post.

The Valke came storming back, scoring a push over try from a line-out. The Lions’ defence disintergrated under the pressure and lock Nico Luus brought his side back into a game they had largely dominated.

However the Lions struck late in the first half through a Ludik try – a sublime Rose pass sending the hard running 19-year-old through to score after a scrappy bit of play in the tight saw the Valke turn over possession. Two more points followed for Harris, sending his side down the tunnel with a flattering 22-13 lead.

The second half was forgettable as poor handling and unadventurous play by the visitors ensured the handful of supporters who had braved the icy temperature remained frozen to their seats.

Two Strydom penalties revived hope of a comeback, with the Valke drawing within six points. They continued to pressurise a fragile looking Lions backline but ultimately it was their lack of adventure that cost them when Eloff’s men were on the ropes.

The Lions’ bonus point try came in the 78th minute when Ludik grabbed his second.

Lions - Tries: Jaco Pretorius, Wylie Human, Louis Ludik (2). Conversions: Mark Harris (3). Penalties: Harris (2).
Valke - Try: Ryan Strudwick. Conversion: Louis Strydom. Penalties: Strydom (4).

By Ryan Vrede