GARETH DUNCAN writes the Lions’ produced a poor second half showing in their 27-15 defeat to the Western Force in Johannesburg.
The last time the Lions won at Ellis Park was in May 2009 when they beat the Highlanders 27-22. After getting their first Super Rugby victory in two years against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last weekend, they were expected to break their losing streak at home against the visiting Force.
However, head coach John Mitchell had to endure a fourth loss of the season as his charges delivered a frustrating display against his former team at the death in a rain-affected game. The hosts had a three-point lead midway through the third quarter and were also a man up at that stage, but an errant and ill-disciplined finish saw the Force cruise to their first win of the campaign.
The Perth-based franchise started off well as they stole the early momentum. Flyhalf James O’Connor played a big role as he sparked a move with a chip ahead and the visitors rushed to the ball first. Once settled in the Lions’ red zone, the 20-year-old pivot threw a long pass to fullback Cameron Shepherd, who swung it wide to centre Nick Cummins and the former sevens specialist tip toed down the touchline past wing Lionel Mapoe for a try in the corner. O’Connor missed the conversion but added two penalties for an 11-point advantage.
The Force held the ascendancy for most parts of the first half but they couldn’t make it count as the Lions managed to keep them out. This allowed Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies to make it a two-point game with three penalties. O’Connor slotted his third three-pointer for the last action of the first stanza to put the Force 14-9 ahead at the break.
The Lions were in control early after the restart and they looked like crossing the chalk as they put together a 14 and 12-phase attack in quick succession. They had the Force on the back foot but didn’t have the composure or the handling to gather enough momentum to reach the try line.
The Force escaped, but the Lions had another visit to their red zone and this time the visitors obstructed them illegally at the breakdown. This saw referee Mark Lawrence reach for his pocket after warning the Force moments earlier and O’Connor, who was the guilty party on this occassion for not rolling away, was sent to the sin bin.
Against 14 men, the Lions could only add six points as Jantjies kicked a penalty and drop goal for a 15-14 lead. But that proved to be the Lions’ final points of the game as the Force took advantage of their poor defensive effort and milked penalties in the final quarter.
Whilst still a man down, Shepherd’s chip and gather put speedster Alfie Mafi through for a runway try. Once O’Connor returned to the field, he punished the Lions’ with two more penalties to seal the game.
The Lions’ inability to put together an 80-minute effort cost them as the Force, despite winning by 12 points, weren’t brilliant on the night. Jantjies was booed by the Ellis Park faithful as he was substituted during the closing stages, which was unfair as the whole team deserved every one of those jeers. Mitchell will definitely be tongue-lashing his team at Monday’s training after this poor performance as Lions boss Robert Gumede and co won’t be happy with one victory from five.