The Sunwolves may have once again tasted Super Rugby defeat on Saturday but the manner in which they played in their 40-38 loss to the Lions at Johannesburg’s Emirates Airline Park suggests things are slowly starting to fall into place for Jamie Joseph’s side.
The loss was the Sunwolves’ 17th straight away defeat and their 30th in 34 games overall, but the performance was in marked contrast to the corresponding fixture last year, when the Lions triumphed 94-7, the second biggest margin of victory in Super Rugby history.
In a game well officiated by Rasta Rasivhenge, the return of Hosea Saumaki gave the visitors a potent attacking weapon as the Sunwolves carried for 505 meters compared with the Lions’ 343.
Lappies Labuschagne and Michael Leitch, meanwhile, led the defensive effort as the Sunwolves forced a number of turnovers and defied the 35-point handicap most pundits had given them going into the game.
But it was the power of the Lions’ pack — and in particular Malcolm Marx — that eventually proved to be the difference.
The Springbok hooker bagged a brace of tries and helped his pack win all 16 of their lineouts, while the Sunwolves won just six out of 10.
“We really put the Lions under the pump but just weren’t good enough,” rued Sunwolves captain Yutaka Nagare.
“I am very proud of the way we played. But we really wanted to beat the Lions at home so I am disappointed.”
An entertaining first half saw the Lions — Super Rugby runners-up the last two seasons — go ahead 19-17.
William Tupou kicked a penalty and added the extras to tries by Kotaro Matsushima and Craig Millar as the Sunwolves showed enterprise in attack and battled valiantly in defense.
The Lions showed glimpses of how they reached the last two finals with Andries Coetzee, Lourens Erasmus and Marx scoring tries and Elton Jantjies, who has spent the last four Northern Hemisphere winters playing for NTT Communications Shining Arcs in the Japan Rugby Top League, kicking two conversions.
But the hosts’ tendency to try to rush things played into the hands of the visitors in the first 40 minutes.
With the game being played at altitude, the big question was whether the injury-riddled Sunwolves squad could last the distance.
They got off to the worst start possible in the second half, with the Lions’ Aphiwe Dyantyi charging down a kick from Harumichi Tatekawa just 15 seconds after the restart to extend the hosts’ lead.
A tremendous individual effort from Saumaki from 55 meters out in the 55th minute, however, showed the Sunwolves were not going to go down without a fight.
Tupou — a surprise choice as goal kicker — added the extras from the touchline as the Sunwolves made it a 26-24 game.
An intercept try from Kazuki Himeno eight minutes later was well deserved by both player and team as the visitors regained the lead, and had many trying to recall if there had ever been such a shocking result in Super Rugby history.
But a second five-pointer by Marx and a try from Rohan Janse van Rensburg eventually saw the Lions home, though Atsushi Sakate’s last-minute effort did ensure the Sunwolves return to Japan with a well-deserved bonus point for losing by seven or less.
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