Attention spans are like gold these days, so for this match, I’ll keep it brief.
After squandering a 24-0 lead to trail by 5 with minutes to go, the Lions fought back to claim just their third win of the season, 37-32 against the travelling Melbourne Rebels. However, the close loss was enough to guarantee that the dubious honour of bottoming out the league, and Australian conference, would not be heading south again this year.
At the start of the match it looked to be history repeating for the visitors, who had lost six from six on the road before this match. The Lions started brilliantly, with a move on the left after a third-minute breakdown landing the ball in the hands of James Kamana, through Lionel Mapoe to Waylon Murray, putting down the first try.
Five minutes later the hosts extended their lead, Derek Minnie crossing the line for his first try. After a similar period the Lions were awarded a penalty and pointed for the sticks, Elton Jantjies converting to make it 17-0 after 15.
The Lions were not dominating play as much as the scoreline suggested, but the Rebels were simply falling victim to the same poor handling skills and wasted possession that have been scattered across their season. When the flanker Minnie crossed again minutes before half time, and with Jantjies slotting his fourth on the trot, the hosts had a 24-0 lead, and any hopes the visitors had of claiming their first overseas win were in tatters.
The tide started to turn as the half time hooter blew, with the Rebels claiming a line-out and setting up the drive. With no time on the clock, the ball ended up in the hands of Ged Robinson, the hooker putting the ball down to open up the tally for the Rebels. Huxley converted and the sides went to oranges 24-7 in favour of the Lions.
The Rebels looked like a different team after the break, keeping the ball secure and taking advantage of a disjointed Lions outfit to make a lot of metres. At 47 minutes, the Johannesburg crowd got a taste of the Hugh Pyle show, with the burly Wallabies contender finding his way through the line not once, but twice in the space of three minutes. Julian Huxley converted the first but missed the second, but the Rebel full back slotted a penalty in the 58th minute, which brought the gap back to 24-22. The Victorians, out of the contest 20 minutes previously, were stalking the Lions like a zebra unwilling to accept his role in the food chain.
The home side looked lost, and were falling into the same mistakes that haunted the Rebels in the first half, not holding onto the ball and making poor decisions when they did have it. Just past the hour mark, Elton Jantjies took a penalty kick and made his count five from five, giving the Lions a much-needed buffer at 27-22.
Not long after, however, Jantjies turned villain when a poor clearance was charged down by James Hilgendorf, who collected and put it down for the Rebels’ fourth try. Huxley’s conversion put the Rebels ahead 29-27 after 63 minutes, the visitors having needed just 24 minutes to erase all the Lions’ hard work in the first half.
Their lead was extended minutes after, when a penalty was awarded to the Rebels from a kickable distance. Huxley converted and gave the Rebels a 5 point lead, 32-27.
While the Rebels had secured their first overseas point, they will have to wait to bring their first win past customs. With seven minutes left on the board, Lions scrum half Michael Bondesio found space from a ruck and passed it to Jaco Kriel, who danced with the touch line and put it down in the corner. Argentinian referee Francisco Pastrana called for the replay to determine if there was paint on his boots. The Lions got the all-clear from the television, Jantjies made it six from six and the Lions had reclaimed the lead.
When the Lions were awarded a penalty after the final siren went, the die had been cast. Jantjies took the kick and made his night’s tally an amazing seven from seven. The Lions had successfully countered the Rebels’ comeback, and given their fans something big to cheer about, perhaps for the final time at home.
For the Rebels, the night marked their seventh international match and their seventh international loss. The two points they earned, however, will be enough to keep them from finishing on the bottom of the ladder, and, save for an unlikely bonus point win by the Force against the Crusaders, will see them finish fourth on the Australian conference table.
In the end, that’s what this match was all about: small victories.
Tries: Derick Minnie 2, Jaco Kriel, Waylon Murray
Conversions: Elton Jantjies 4/4
Penalties: Elton Jantjies 3/3
MELBOURNE REBELS 32
Tries: Hugh Pyle 2, James Hilgendorf, Ged Robinson
Conversions: Julian Huxley 3/4
Penalties: Julian Huxley 2/2