Not a dry eye on the plane – Emirates Lions return home to lick their wounds

Emirates Lions
DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - MAY 12: A scrum packs down during the round 12 Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Lions at Forsyth Barr Stadium on May 12, 2018 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

They had more reasons to call home other than just to wish their mom’s happy Mother’s Day this Sunday. Players probably also needed some emotional support as the Emirates Lions return home to lick their wounds.

Last Word on Rugby’s Corry Myburg’s debut article details his thoughts on the Lions tour to Australasia.

What had started as an encouraging tour against the New South Wales’ Waratahs four weeks earlier, ultimately collapsed with three-straight losses, in as many weeks. Now they will face a much tougher run to the playoffs; which may also see them miss out on a home Quarter-final.

Emirates Lions head home

In their first game on tour, zero didn’t mean much…. it meant a lot! That’s what the Lions allowed the Waratahs to score in Super Rugby Week 10. Swys De Bryn managed to stave off his team’s jetlag just long enough to put in a great performance. Their defensive strategy was clearly to ‘rip the possession away’ from the opposition, which gave the Waratahs almost no attacking ball.

Their dangerous winger, Maddosh Tambwe, had an easy run-in to score the first try of the match. Separated by just seven points after the opening half, in the second, the Lions kept up the intensity and managed to block out the Waratahs for the remainder of the match. Scoring three more tries to end the game on 0-29, securing the bonus point win.

It was the first time in Super Rugby history that the Waratahs couldn’t manage to score any points in a match, embarrassing themselves at home. Step one complete for ‘Mission Lions’.

Disappointing result in Brisbane

One week later the jetlag appeared to be an issue, as the Lions took on the Queensland Reds at Suncorp Stadium. They allowed four quick tries against them in the first half. The Reds, who were bolstered by the return of their veteran stalwart George Smith, had sensed the Lions would prefer a slow match; working off of their set pieces instead of playing a wide, attacking game that suited the home side. Instead, the hosts exploited that strategy and the Lions had plenty of work to do in the second half, to try and come back into the game [from 27-0 down].

They almost succeeded too. Preventing any more tries against them, and responding with four tries of their own. Unfortunately, they ran out of time and lost a game they had expected to win comfortably, by only five points. The final score was 27-22, and it is worth noting that only one try was successfully converted. If Elton Jantjes had been more accurate, they could still have ended up with a one-point victory over Brad Thorne’s men. It was not to be and so, the Lions left Australia to cross the Tasman sea knowing that the games to follow would be a lot tougher.

Another slow start by the Lions

In week 12, they faced their fiercest opposition in the Super Rugby competition. The Hurricanes in Wellington are formidable foes. Few teams who go there, expect a positive result. Nevertheless, the Lions surely felt that they could turn the tour around with a strong showing in the some of the most trying conditions.

Losing Malcom Marx in the first 10 minutes may just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. A loose pass by the Hurricanes was turned into attack, and saw Ruan Combrink and Lionel Mapoe easily shaken off by Ben Lam, who ran in an easy first try. The Lions finally hit back in the last few minutes of the half, with backup scrumhalf Nick Groom sniping over the line to get them on the scoreboard.

Lam went on to score his second hat-trick of the season, with two more tries in the second, adding to Ardie Savea’s one from the first half. That brought the Hurricanes’ total count to four. By then, the match was all but sealed-up. All Blacks number 10 Beauden Barrett had converted all their tries successfully, giving the Hurricanes 28 over the Lions’ 7 with only 15 minutes left to go.

The Lions again fought back bravely, managing one try themselves from versatile replacement loose forward, Marnus Schoeman. Another came against the run of play, but hat was the last try of the match. Bringing the final scores to 28-19, and a modicum of respect.

Lions players look on in disappointment after a Hurricanes try at Westpac Stadium on May 5, 2018 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the week leading up to their final tour match, Swys De Bryn speculated that Marnus Schoeman may be considered to play hooker in place of the injured Malcom Marx. Marx, who had flown home for scans on Monday, would miss the rest of their tour (ensuring he might still play in the Test series in June). But the ‘rumours’ were put to bed when the team was announced on Thursday, and Schoeman was once again selected for his impact off the bench; rather than experimentation in the front row.

Southern tour ends with a whimper

Their final tour opponents; the Highlanders, had returned home to New Zealand that very week. That was after going down to the Sharks in Durban. Head coach Aaron Mauger was clearly determined to get his team back to their winning ways, back home at Forsyth-Barr Stadium.

Fly-half Lima Sopoaga opened the Highlanders’ score sheet with a break through the middle to give them the early lead. A lead which they didn’t let go of, for the rest of the game. Liam Coltman and Luke Whitelock added tries to their tally during the first half, leaving the Lions still without a response of their own.

The visitors had to fight back at the end of the half, finally managing to get Harold Vorster over the line to start their night. The damage was already done though. Whilst players like Kwagga Smith and his pack tried valiantly, Sopoaga took the match away from them in last few minutes. Slotting two penalty goals from difficult positions, and shattering the Lions hopes of a comeback victory – and anymore competition points.

Southern tour result: One from four; just Six competition points

The Lions’ tour ended with one out of four wins yet they still remain on top of the South African Conference. A fortunate place, considering the poor haul of competition points. And the Bulls and Jaguares are closing in quickly. The Jaguares have just come off a majestic ‘four out of four’ wins away.

Swys De Bryn’s best laid plans had come up short, their position on the log now precariously close to missing out on a home quarter-final. Granted, only if one or two more slip-ups are allowed.

The Lions also face the Brumbies (at home) and the Stormers (away) in the next two weeks, before their Conference takes time to focus on the June Internationals.

Returning in Week 17, they will play the Sharks (away) in what will no doubt be another closely contested South African derby. This may also become a season decider, if things don’t start improving for the boys from Johannesburg. If not, then it could be ‘tears at bedtime’ as others overtake them on the standings ladder. And nobody wants that, for this much fancied side.

Expect improvements, as the pressure is applied to coach and players.

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