The Lions got their United Rugby Championship adventure off to the perfect – if nervy – start when they edged Italian side Zebre 38-26 in Parma on Friday night.
The win would have surprised most observers following the Lions’ disappointing showing in the Currie Cup over the last few months. Ivan van Rooyen’s team won two of 12 matches in the domestic competition and were not given much chance of making an impression in the URC.
The Lions, thanks to an excellent first half which saw them score five tries and 35 points – and at the same time keep Zebre pointless, were able to hang on for the win after just about falling to pieces in the second spell.
Hang on, because after half-time, unlike the first 40 minutes, there was only one team in it – Zebre. They hit back in some style and scared the Lions good and proper, closing to within 12 points after scoring 26 unanswered points.
The win though would have boosted confidence in the Lions squad and relieved some pressure on Van Rooyen and his new-look coaching team.
In a game of two halves, Lions wing Jamba Ulengo was the first man to cross the tryline in the 11th minute after a good long pass by flyhalf Jordan Hendrikse and not long after that, captain Burger Odendaal powered over from close range.
Then, in the 20th and 22nd minutes, wing Rabx Maxwane went in for the double – his first from a sweeping attacking move from deep, and the second after collecting a bouncing ball that had been kicked ahead by Odendaal.
And the Lions’ fifth try came from hooker Jaco Visagie, who ran in from 35 metres out after collecting a loose ball that hadn’t been taken in the air by the Zebre players.
A Hendrikse penalty after half-time took the Lions to a 38-0 lead, but out of nowhere almost Zebre found their groove and they simply ripped the Lions defence to shreds over the course of the rest of the second half.
In the space of 12 minutes, flyhalf Carlo Canna, centre Tommaso Boni and replacement hooker Oliviero Fabiani crossed for tries for Zebre, while they were also awarded a penalty try, resulting in Lions loose-forward Sibusiso Sangweni being sin-binned.
Thankfully for the Lions, Zebre ran out of some steam and momentum in the closing stages and the Lions were able to register a much-needed win.