The Lions dealt a killer blow to the Vodacom Bulls' hopes of making the playoffs, as they turned the form book on its head to record a passionate 32-21 victory at Ellis Park on Saturday.
It is no secret the Bulls – languishing in ninth on the log – had to win all their remaining games – and as many as possible with bonus points – if they were to sneak into the back door and deem their Vodacom Super Rugby season a success.
But on a night where the Lions enjoyed the best of starts – going up 9-0 in the space of 10 minutes - the Bulls' season remained as mediocre as some of their team choices, as they have only the slimmest of mathematical chances of making the playoffs at the moment.
It was a night where the Bulls were supposed to rule supreme, especially with the Lions just returning from overseas and struggling with a bunch of injuries. But thanks to a flawless kicking performance from Marnitz Boshoff, who contributed 22 points on the night, there was only really one side in the match.
The Bulls still sit on 33 points – and therefore cannot catch the Sharks with just two games left - and can only get to 43 points if they win both remaining games with a bonus point. But their last two games are away to the Stormers at Newlands and at home to the Rebels in the final round, so while it is technically possible, it is unlikely.
Given the way the competition has run thus far, anything can still happen, but the Bulls are likely to start planning now for the Currie Cup after a season of too many poor decisions on attack that cost them.
That didn’t stop the Lions from enjoying their moment in the sun however, and deservedly so. The passionate display was evidence of the Lions at their best, with some enterprising play more than overcoming their lack of gamebreakers. The victory also broke a losing streak of seven games, after they started with four wins in a row.
In fact, on the night, to an outsider it would be surprising to know that one team was still in contention and the other not, such was the reversal of roles.
The victory also moved the Lions off the bottom of the Super Rugby log, taking them to 13th place with their fifth victory of the season.
And it was a victory built on passion, as was shown from the kickoff, where they mercilessly attacked the Bulls line after winning back the ball.
It didn’t take long before Boshoff banged over a drop goal, followed by two penalties to get them ahead in the opening moments of the game.
In contrast, the Bulls fluffed two chances – the first when Akona Ndungane bounced off a defender to get close, popping the ball up to Jurgen Visser, who lost it over the line and then when Bjorn Basson went in at the corner after a bullocking run from Marcel van der Merwe, but was denied by the TMO as his legs touched the sideline as he dived over.
It took all of 32 minutes for the Bulls to get themselves on the board, with Jacques-Louis Potgieter succeeding with his second penalty attempt, and then slowly clawing his side back with two more penalties to draw level in the 45th minute.
It was about this time when the Bulls normally go into another gear, and use their slow poison to pull away at the end, but a fatal mistake from the kickoff following Potgieter’s penalty turned the game on its head.
Grant Hattingh failed to gather the ball in the air, knocking it forward into Warren Whiteley’s hands, and the Lions captain snapped the ball left to a flying Alwyn Hollenbach, who only had to break one tackle to score.
Where the Bulls looked in control, the Lions were back, and where the Bulls were inching forward, the Lions were running from everywhere.
The pressure of a season ticking away began to tell as Boshoff snapped another drop goal and then put over a penalty to take the game to 22-9.
But it was ripped away from the Bulls when Warwick Tecklenburg scored a beautiful try – possibly a candidate for try of the season – with some excellent work by Elton Jantjies, who popped a perfect overhead backward pass to Stokkies Hanekom, with the centre weaving his way to a metre from the tryline, before Tecklenburg took the pop pass to fall over to score.
At 29-9 the writing was on the wall, and it was all but impossible for the Bulls to come back. But they tried.
Two quick tries – one from William Small-Smith and another from Jacques du Plessis – within 90 seconds of each other, gave the Bulls hope.
In their quest for the impossible, they were overzealous and conceded a string of penalties that took the Lions upfield and gave the home side a last shot at goal, which Boshoff provided with ease.
It will leave the Bulls with a sour taste, but they only have themselves to blame for the season they have had.
The Lions though will build on the promise they can beat any team, especially those they know so well.
Lions: Tries Alwyn Hollenbach, Warwick Tecklenburg.Conversions: Marnitz Boshoff(2). Penalties: Marnitz Boshoff (4). Drop Goals: Marnitz Boshoff(2)
Bulls –Tries: William Small-Smith, Jacques Du Plessis. Conversion: Jacques-Louis Potgieter. Penalties: Jacques-Louis Potgieter(3) .