Lions edge courageous Cheetahs

A Heinrich Brüssow-inspired Cheetahs team went down 26-24 to a second-rate Lions side in Bloemfontein.

This game was one of two halves with the sin-binning of flanker Stephen Ferris the watershed. The tourists were 20-0 up after 24 minutes before Ferris paid the price for the umpteenth breakdown transgression. The Cheetahs scored 14 points in the blindside’s absence to trail 23-14 at the break.

The option-taking and defence wasn’t always great from the home team. Their line defence repelled many a Lions surge, but a soft try by Ferris allowed the visitors to shoot to a 10-0 lead after 12 minutes. A subsequent chip by James Hook was gathered by centre Keith Earls who swerved past a couple of defenders en route to the tryline.

During this period, referee Wayne Barnes allowed the Lions to spoil on defence and seal the breakdown ball off on attack. Brüssow made a couple of turnovers but the Lions were still getting away with illegal play.

It took 23 minutes for Barnes to brandish yellow, and from here the Cheetahs began to gather some momentum. Danwel Demas rounded off a good move that exploited the Lions’ one-man disadvantage, and prop Wian du Preez reduced the deficit further when he steamrolled a defender from close range.

Back to their full compliment, the Lions sought to keep it tighter. They had the better of the Cheetahs’ scrum, Andrew Sheridan applying unsustainable pressure on the outclassed Kobus Calldo. The Lions’ set-piece even held its own when Ferris was off, and the Springbok management should take note, the Lions’ scrum is going to be a massive factor in the Test series. Hook goaled three penalties accrued from the Cheetahs’ scrum transgressions, and it kept the hosts at arm’s length.

The breakdown, however, was a different story. On defence, the visitors did everything they could to spoil the Cheetahs’ ball. Brüssow had another industrious outing in the tackle-department, but it was his ground-zero scavenging that proved the biggest boost to the hosts. Because of his proficiency, the visitors battled to get go-forward after the initial set-piece.

Jacques-Louis Potgieter kicked well initially but missed a great opportunity in the 52nd minute when he pushed a penalty-attempt wide. The three points would’ve reduced the deficit to 26-20 at a critical stage of the game.

The Cheetahs tried their hearts out, and it’s just a pity there weren’t more people at the stadium to witness their brave efforts. Vodacom Park saw 23 000 patrons through the gates, a shocking number considering the stadium now holds 48 000.

The Lions were shaky and it’s only through little errors that the Cheetahs didn’t put them away. Yet another Lions breakdown infringement gifted the hosts a penalty, but Potgieter proceeded to kick it dead. The Cheetahs’ inferiority at scrum time also continued to cost them possession and territory from ensuing penalties.

And yet, it was their strength at the tackle point that kept them afloat. Brüssow never relented in his quest for dominance and his team-mates never dropped their intensity. The Lions have a long way to go if they’re going to compete with the Bok breakdown in the coming Tests.

Both sides were exhausted by the hour mark and it was here that the Cheetahs were always going to be tested. They made another crucial turnover after the Lions launched a multi-phase assault on their tryline. It was clear the Lions would not be coasting to victory in the final minutes.

Replacement flyhalf Louis Strydom missed a difficult penalty attempt in the 70th minute to allow the Lions to keep their nine-point cushion. However, a brilliant reading of a flat Shane Williams pass allowed Corne Uys to sprint 80m for a seven-pointer. With six minutes to go, the Cheetahs had a chance of a massive upset.

The Lions were running out of puff as the clock wound down and the local supporters began to find their voice. After Meyer Bosman crashed it up into the suspect Irish midfield, Strydom slipped into the pocket for the drop-goal. Unfortunately, the kick drifted cruelly wide.

The Cheetahs looked to have another opportunity to win it when Lions fullback Lee Byrne dropped a high ball and his retreating team-mates played it from an offside position, but it was a transgression that the fallible Barnes missed.

The Lions eventually won a penalty in the final play and hacked it into touch. The win takes them to a three-from-three tour record, but there will be more concerns than positives for Ian McGeechan as he prepares his charges for the Tests.

By Jon Cardinelli, at Vodacom Park