Johannesburg fans can celebrate their first local final in nine years after the log-leading MTN Golden Lions saw off the challenge of the fourth-placed DHL Western Province side 29-20 (halftime 19-12) in their Absa Currie Cup semifinal at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Fears that this might still not be the Lions’ year, despite their dominance of the Springbok-less round-robin stage, proved unfounded as they produced an efficient, powerful and disciplined performance against a Western Province team that relied too heavily on their star-laden backline and allowed frustration to lead to ill-discipline too often.
The old adage of rugby matches being won up front proved correct once again as the Lions’ forwards gave a typically passionate performance. Passion is not usually enough, however, and the key to the Gautenger’s victory was the accuracy they brought to the breakdowns. It was noticeable that, by the end of the game, Western Province seemed totally baffled by referee Jaco Peyper’s rulings.
Realising that their strength lay with a ball-in-hand approach that involved the likes of Jaque Fourie, Gio Aplon, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana, Western Province tried to play like the ‘Streeptruie’ sides of lore, but the Lions defence was impressively watertight and penalties rained down on them as they were messy in the crucial breakdown department, going off their feet and playing the ball with hands in the ruck.
Western Province opened the scoring in the ninth minute after fullback Aplon twinkle-toed down the left and eighthman Nick Koster then burst down space on the right, earning a penalty at the ruck. Flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis slotted the kick, but it would be the last time the visitors were ahead.
Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies, having carried the ball three times in the build-up, including knocking flank Siya Kolisi out and off the field, slotted a 12th-minute penalty to level the scores.
In a month that has seen a disappointing end to an era at Springbok level, the 21-year-old Jantjies showed what bright talent is out there as he ran the Lions attack smoothly and kicked magnificently, succeeding with further penalties in the 19th and 21st minutes.
Western Province pulled a penalty back via Catrakilis in the 24th minute after they had totally wheeled a Lions scrum (6-9), but the visitors were lucky they just got away with a penalty against them three minutes later. The Lions were hard on attack after a great break by lock Wikus van Heerden, who had flank Derick Minnie on his shoulder to carry the move into the WP 22, where Koster went off his feet at the ruck and wing Habana came flying in and illegally took out the scrumhalf. Jantjies kicked the penalty and the Lions were 12-6 up.
Western Province were keeping the ball in hand well, but were not really getting anywhere, so they were happy to take another Catrakilis penalty in the 32nd minute after Lions centre Doppies la Grange went digging for the ball in a ruck.
The Lions had more success running at the visitors, getting over the gain line and exploring the weak points. Their first try finally came after 35 minutes when replacement prop Jacobie Adriaanse gave them go-forward and fullback Jaco Taute then superbly exploited a two-on-one overlap out wide with wing Deon van Rensburg, getting the pass back to score under the poles. The conversion was a formality for the immaculate Jantjies and the Lions lead was 19-9 with three minutes to go until halftime.
The visitors did have the final say before the break, through the boot of Catrakilis, and the Lions were wary coming out for the second half with just a seven-point lead.
They were looking far more chilled seven minutes later though, as they scored the crucial first try of the second half. Centre Alwyn Hollenbach, who performed his defensive duties superbly, made a crunching run, before Jantjies hoisted an up-and-under.
WP claimed the ball and set up a ruck, but alert wing Michael Killian created confusion at the base, intercepted a pass and sprinted clear to score. Western Province were complaining that the officials had not done their job in policing the offside line and, with Jantjies kicking the conversion from the touchline, the visitors would be chasing the game with a 12-26 deficit.
The Lions scrum would be penalised again in the 17th minute, Catrakilis closing the gap to 15-26, but this was cancelled out by Jantjies’s 19th-minute penalty (15-29).
The home side’s defence would be thoroughly tested in the final quarter, but they put their bodies on the line like potential national champions and not even the heroic Schalk Burger could make an impact for Western Province.
The visitors were parked in the Lions 22 for close on 10 minutes before they eventually worked an overlap, Burger hurling a long pass out to replacement centre Juan de Jongh to stroll over for their only try.
Catrakilis made a hash of an important conversion that would have put Western Province in try-scoring reach of the Lions, but it was only fitting that the home side ended the match in the visitors’ territory.
While Jantjies gave an inspired performance at flyhalf, there were other heroes. Minnie was highly influential as the Lions dominated the crucial breakdowns, locks Franco van der Merwe and Van Heerden were always in the thick of things, as were loosies Michael Rhodes and Joshua Strauss. Hollenbach was a rock in midfield, while Taute was a threat whenever he inserted himself in the backline.
Lions – Tries: Jaco Taute, Michael Killian. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (5)
Western Province – Try: Juan De Jongh. Penalties: Demetri Catrakilis (5)