JOHANNESBURG – A warm summer’s eve, the wind still, the grass green, tended, manicured. The hulking construct of red seats, concrete and iron, cocooned, wrapping around the field, holding the innards of the stadium together. Ponte Tower sticking through the crevices of the stands to the north-west, its neon advertising illuminating a perfect Johannesburg night for running rugby.
If this is what home comforts will look like in the coming weeks, then the Emirates Lions will be a contented group of players and coaching staff as they prepare for the Blue Bulls next week, and then the Pumas and somewhere in the foreseeable future, the Free State Cheetahs as well – all at home.
Their home ground advantage started off emphatically on Friday night when they cruised to a 61-31 victory over the Griquas in their fourth round SuperRugby Unlocked encounter. And the dominating triumph will go a long way in affirming that coach Ivan van Rooyen and his charges are on the right path, but stiffer competition awaits in the coming weeks.
“There are a lot of positives,” said Van Rooyen after the match. “We were inconsistent for about 20 minutes (in the second half), but also I am proud of the guys for fighting back in the end, just to get their rhythm back. So, ja, happy to get the five points.”
It was an opinion that captain Elton Jantjies reflected on as well. Said the flyhalf: “It was a great step up from the boys, especially converting this game into five points after the first two losses. We got away with two losing bonus points (against the Sharks and Stormers).
“Yes, that little patch (in the second half) things went a bit against us,” Jantjies continued, “but I asked the boys to keep on doing what we are doing and take responsibility when we make decisions. So, the boys responded quite well in the last 20 minutes.”
In spite of shipping nine tries against the team from Kimberley, and his backline firing on all cylinders, Van Rooyen will know that there is still much work to do.
The Lions lost their way a bit in the second half after a stellar first stanza, allowing the Griquas to dominate the encounter for a fair amount of time, in which their defensive structures – mostly staunch and unyielding during the match – faltered a bit too much to be proud of it in absolute terms.
Once again, their breakdown work oscillated between the brilliant and the confounding, and their maul – although much improved, will have to be even sharper if it is to be used as a tool against the Bulls on Saturday. At scrum-time, the Lions were glorious – their first home game victory built on the power and work-rate of their forwards – but that too will come under much harsher examination in due time.
“I think the forwards were good for us,” said Van Rooyen. “The scrum and line-outs were good and we were pretty dominant in those areas … The forward built the platform for us at the start of the game.
“We know the Bulls have a pretty good pack up-front, but we will first have to see what we can learn from this game (on Monday), see what we can improve upon, and then focus on the Bulls.
“Off the cuff, without having reviewed the game, we need to improve our consistency in our decision making, consistency in execution, and getting our error rate a bit more down,” Van Rooyen concluded.