Saturday’s Lions once again flattered to deceive against the Free State Cheetahs, starting with a bang but petering out to a splutter.
Taking their cue from Wednesday’s stellar performance, these Lions, under the captaincy of Paul O’Connell, began with twenty points in the first quarter and well deserved was their lead.
At this stage of the tour, as important as it is to keep on a winning run, it is as much about individual performances and who’s putting themselves in the test frame. Two blindside flankers are tough to pick between right now with Croft and Ferris putting in solid performances. When describing Croft’s major attributes, pace would be top of the list. Ferris has proven he is no slouch either with two tries on this tour worthy of a winger. Early in this match he scored his second of the tour, a pick up and go from the base of a ruck added to a Hook penalty and helped the Lions to an early lead.
Keith Earls was next on the scoresheet, making up for his shocker a week prior with a perfectly timed run onto a James Hook chip, swerving past two cover tacklers to score by the posts. The whole Lions squad, both playing and non-playing, were delighted for the young Munster man.
Any concerns about the quality of the weekend team seemed to be unfounded as the Lions fans sensed a rout. However the balance of the side was being challenged by one Cheetah in particular, openside Heinrich Brussow. After the Lions’ initial onslaught it seemed at times they were playing with a forward short as Brussow was allowed time and time again to slow down the ball or steal it outright.
This situation conspired to get Ferris sent to the sin bin as the Lions allowed the Cheetahs back into the game by conceding too many penalties. During that 10 minute spell sevens specialist Dumas and prop Du Preez both went over for tries to bring the Cheetahs right back into the match by half time, at 23-14.
The second half only resulted in 3 more points for the Lions as the Cheetahs gained the ascendancy and Brussow made us all wonder how good the opensides who did make the Springbok squad must be.
The Lions managed to maintain their 9 point lead through tenacious defending and some wayward place-kicking from the Cheetahs. It was only within the last 10 minutes that the home team were really in with a shout of winning this match, as a wayward Shane Williams pass, who was well below his best, was picked off by Corne Uys who cantered to the line to put the Cheetahs two points behind.
From such a strong start the Lions looked shocked to find themselves slugging it out in the dying moments and they had to rely on a missed drop goal to seal the win.
Another stumbling block passed on the rocky road towards the first test in Durban. The challenge is set to get tougher as the Lions face the Natal Sharks on Wednesday. There are still a lot of positions up for grabs and it’s still the most exciting spectacle in a thrilling summer of sport.