Lions lose battle, win war

WP managed a 14-6 victory at Newlands but a stubborn effort by the visitors ensured Loffie Eloff’s charges a place in the semi-finals.

Province required four tries and a 19-point winning margin to book their place in the play-offs, but failed on both counts. The Lions will meet the Sharks in Durban next Saturday, while the Cheetahs will travel up to Pretoria to take on the Blue Bulls.

The amount at stake in this fixture was reflected in the attitude of the players. The first half was typified by off-the-ball scuffles, and the visitors, to their credit, never took a step back. But overall, the Lions employed a negative brand, and fortunately for Province, referee Craig Joubert penalised their spoiling at the breakdown.

Earl Rose was also content to sit back in the pocket, and WP had no answer to this high-ball strategy. It was only at the stroke of half-time when Luke Watson scored from the back of a driving maul. It was a bright end to a disappointing half of rugby, but WP’s four-try goal was, at this point, still attainable.

This was the rare occasion where the WP lineout managed to lay the platform. Schalk Brits was far from accurate, and Province also missed the sure hands of Adriaan Fondse at the front of the set piece. WP a blew a number of opportunities through poor handling, and the pressure of the situation told time and again. Ricky Januarie dropped the ball with line at his mercy early in the first half, an unforgivable mistake by a Test player.

Watson’s try sent the hosts into the change room with a 7-0 lead, but WP proceeded to spurn chances in the second half. It appeared as if there was no clear-cut game plan, and WP seemed to be hoping for individual brilliance to initiate the breakthrough. There was no inclination to build through the phases, and the Lions defence was all to happy to shift the attacking players into touch.

Based on their approach to this game, the Lions deserve their place in the semi-final. They were penalised heavily at the breakdown, but their ability to frustrate WP at the tackle point and curb their momentum out wide was all to easy. They did the necessary, and Province showed an inability to adapt.

Lions replacement Louis Strydom provided WP with a glimmer of hope when he handed Jean de Villiers a gift of an interception. The Bok No 12 ran 80m to score, and Joe Pietersen drop-kicked the conversion to add the extras. With 15 minutes play, WP still had a sniff.

WP had another golden opportunity in the 72nd minute when they inched ever closer to the Lions line. But the predictable handling error occurred and it was the Super 14 final league game all over again. The Cape side had left too much to do with minimal time remaining.

Rose goaled a penalty at the beginning of the second half, and nailed another in the 77nd minute to make WP’s task an impossible one. Even if Province ran in two converted tries in as many minutes, they would have come short on the log standings.

The result marks the second consecutive year where WP have failed to make the play-offs. The coaches may blame the loss of numerous Boks at the start of the season, but they’ll look back at losses to Griquas and the Valke as unforgivable contributions to their ultimate downfall.

WP – Tries: Luke Watson, Jean de Villiers. Conversions: Peter Grant, Joe Pietersen.
Lions – Penalties: Earl Rose (2).

By Jon Cardinelli