In week three of this year’s Super Rugby competition, the Lions lost 22-19 to the Stormers in Johannesburg. This Saturday the two sides meet again in Cape Town with the South African conference at stake.
Few people, perhaps least of all within the Lions’ camp, could have believed back then that the reverse fixture would hold such importance. History is lived forward but understood in reverse, so it is worth recalling what happened on that damp evening on the highveld at the end of February.
The Stormers had plenty of possession but squandered it, a habit that has returned to bite them several times since. Indeed, they crossed the Lions’ try line twice in the first half, but couldn’t manage to plant the ball for a try. It was an early example of the remarkable defensive ability of the Lions, something that would become even more apparent on their tour of the antipodes.
The Lions led 13-9 at the break and the two flyhalves exchanged penalties thereafter to keep the game close. With four minutes to go, Stormers captain Duane Vermeulen opted to set a line-out from a penalty. It proved an inspired decision as the Stormers won the ball and drove flank forward Siya Kolisi over the line for the try.
Crucially for the direction the season would subsequently take, the conversion from the touchline flew between the uprights. The Stormers had been behind for 76 minutes, but now led by three. The successful kick came from replacement flyhalf Kurt Coleman.
Four makeable penalties
Two months later, Coleman missed four makeable penalties against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. The Stormers lost, their only setback in the last seven fixtures, and Coleman has scarcely been seen since. But in Johannesburg, when it counted, he put his best foot forward. The extra two points gave the Stormers a buffer of three, meaning that the Lions now needed a try to win.
In the dying minutes the Lions played some astonishing rugby, taking the ball through 25 phases at one stage. They were awarded two kickable penalties along the way, but skipper Warren Whiteley wanted a win and not a draw.
In the second minute after the hooter had sounded, the Lions worked replacement centre Howard Mnisi across the try line, but the ball was dislodged from his grasp by Damian de Allende and the Stormers held on for the win. Fast forward three months and the impact of those breathless few minutes at the end of the game becomes apparent.
The Stormers are second on the combined log with 43 points, needing a further three from their last two games to be assured of topping the South African conference. They lead the Lions, who only have one game left, by three points and the Bulls, who have two, by seven.
If the Lions had taken the draw in February they would have one more log point (they earned a bonus point by finishing within seven) and the Stormers would have two less. In other words, the two sides would be level on 41 points but the Lions would be in pole position, having won 10 games to the Stormers’ nine, a reversal of the current set-up.
The question is: If the Lions had known then what they know now, would they have done things differently in February? The answer is probably not, for defeat by three points and victory by a similar margin are two sides of the same coin. All that can be said for certain is that the Lions are a far better side now than they were when they last faced the Stormers.
A million miles from the template
That was never more obvious than against the Waratahs last week, a team they had not beaten since 1997. It took a television match official (TMO) decision to overrule Courtnall Skosan’s try to stop the Lions from winning with a bonus point. Few would have begrudged them, for this was rugby full of verve and daring – a million miles from the template most of our teams fit into.
The sheer willingness to try and run out of danger was shocking in its intensity. It made the defending champions seem pedestrian by comparison, and will ensure that the Stormers do not take their opponents lightly this week. It might be argued that the Capetonians were at something approaching their best last Saturday too, but it has to be kept in mind that the Cheetahs do not present a threat that’s anything as potent as the Waratahs.
Put simply, the Stormers will have to bring their A game to avoid defeat. It can be assumed flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis will kick his goals, but will the Stormers score enough points with ball in hand to stop the Lions’ surge? Defeat for the Stormers without the accrual of a bonus point would mean two things: the Lions would move into the top three of the overall log and the Stormers would need at least one and possibly two points from their final fixture against the Sharks in Durban.
At this late stage of the season much depends on momentum, and right now it favours the Lions. It is probably true to say that they need too many results to go their way to make the playoffs, but they have done enough this season to deserve a moment in the sun at the top of the South African log, even if it only lasts one week.