Ferocious Lions snatch late winner

JON CARDINELLI reports on the Lions’ combative 26-22 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.

It was a dramatic finish at Carisbrook, as with three minutes remaining, the Highlanders looked to be comfortable victors. They had successfully negotiated a late Lions surge, and all they needed to do was kick the penalty to touch and then kill the clock.

But Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga failed to find the touchline which allowed the Lions to rally for one final attack. They showed terrific patience and control, and when the moment presented itself, lock Wikus van Heerden powered over for the winning score.

It was a fantastic response from a team under pressure. Coach John Mitchell took aim at his forwards after last week’s weak showing in Sydney, and the public castigation seemed to do the trick. The Lions’ heavies weren’t always accurate, but they provided the necessary mongrel in what was an old-fashioned, and often ugly, barney.

There were times when the Highlanders would employ their trademark counter-ruck, only to lose the ball at the very same breakdown. The competition for possession was fierce, and the Lions’ forwards gave absolutely everything.

Elton Jantjies was in superb goal-kicking form and produced some galvanising touches with ball in hand. Inside centre Butch James dovetailed well with Jantjies, although the Springbok could have done more to commit opposition defenders by carrying the ball to the line. As it was, James relied on his sublime handling skills to send the ball wide, and often created space for outside runners.

The Highlanders stuck to their game plan of targeting the Lions up front, and enjoyed some early success. Captain Jamie Mackintosh turned down a simple shot at goal, a decision that was vindicated when Shaun Treeby scored from a subsequent scrum. It was a well finished move that simultaneously highlighted the Lions’ defensive weakness.

Sopoaga kicked well to take the Highlanders to a comfortable half-time lead. He then proceeded to miss a sitter at the start of the second stanza, and the handling of the hosts continued to cull promising attacking movements.

The Highlanders dropped their intensity on defence, and a James-inspired counter-attack earned the Lions a penalty deep in opposition’ territory. A quick tap by Josh Strauss caught them napping again, and Jantjies’s conversion saw the brave Lions draw level on the scoreboard.

Indiscipline handed the Highlanders a reprieve in final 20 minutes. Just seconds after Jantjies booted the Lions into the lead, Bandise Maku conceded a penalty at the other end. Another penalty off the subsequent kickoff allowed the Highlanders to return to Lions territory, and the visitors resorted to questionable tactics in an effort to stop the Highlanders’ barrage.

Lions flank Michael Rhodes grabbed Highlanders wing Siale Piutau by the neck in an attempt to clear him from a ruck, and Piutau responded with a punch. The referee didn’t see either infringement, but both players are sure to be cited and spend a week or two on the sidelines. You almost feel that Piutau was justified in retaliating, as Rhodes did his best to pull the winger’s head off.

But neither player was penalised and the Lions managed to hold out. Handling errors provided the Highlanders with further opportunities, but incredibly the Lions’ defence stood firm.

The Highlanders enjoyed a three-point lead as the clock wound down, but it was the visitors that showed the necessary composure to win the game. Sopoaga missed his penalty kick for touch, and the disorganised Highlanders’ defence allowed the Lions to build one last attack.

The result is an important one from a South African perspective, as the loss for the Highlanders gives the Bulls and Sharks an opportunity to make up some lost ground as they push for a play-off place.

Follow JC on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby on Twitter