The Emirates Western Force have kicked their season into drive and made a winning start to their South African tour with an impressive 12 point victory against the Lions at a rain lashed Coca Cola Park in Johannesburg.
The West Australian’s gave skipper Nathan Sharpe, who equalled George Gregan’s all-time Super Rugby appearance record, a game to remember as they overpowered a determined Lions outfit.
Matt Hodgson starred as the visitors who produced a powerful, forward-dominated performance to tame the Lions and atone for the disappointment following last weekend’s draw against the Blues.
“It was really important for us to get the result we’ve been working so hard for,” Head Coach Richard Graham said.
“The result is reward for the boy’s efforts over the last couple of weeks. Now that we’ve got that under our belt we need to make it the catalyst to take our season forward,” said Graham. “I thought our forwards were outstanding, the scrum was very good and the line-out performed well, it was them that really set a platform for the backs to take advantage.”
Defence was again a key for the Emirates Western Force who kept the South African’s try-less while running in two of their own to Nick Cummings and Alfie Mafi. James O’Connor was again on target with the boot, contributing 15 points.
The initial exchanges unsurprisingly saw both sides respond to the damp, slippery conditions by keeping it tight, preferring to let the forwards work through the phases rather than risk spreading the greasy ball out into the hands of the backs.
Indeed, so keen were the Force’s forwards to keep possession, it wasn’t until the eighth minute that O’Connor managed to get the ball in hand, and he needed no second invitation to weave some trademark magic.
His clever chip caught the home defence too high and too flat, allowing Nick Cummings to burst clear and after the forwards took over to rumble closer to the line, the ball was moved rapidly out to the left where Cummings again popped up in the right place at the right time to slide over in the corner.
O’Connor was unable to ice the early cake with the conversion, but swiftly made amends by landing a penalty to take the visitors out to an 8-0 lead.
Richard Graham’s men were steadily starting to take control and that was further reflected on the scoreboard midway through the half when Lions hooker Bandise Maku was penalised for going off his feet at a ruck right in front of the posts and O’Connor calmly added another three points.
Displaying the kind of aggressive and abrasive defence that served them so well against both the Reds and the Blues this season, the West Aussies continued to look the better side, but couldn’t quite translate that dominance into points.
Instead, several rare forays downfield from the hosts saw fly-half Elton Jantjies land three long-range penalty goals to reduce the deficit to two points, before O’Connor responded in kind on the stroke of half-time.
Half-time: Lions 9 – 14 Emirates Western Force
The Lions, clearly encouraged by the fact that they were still within reach of the Perth side, despite being outplayed and outfought for much of the first-half, they began the second period brightly and should have bagged their first try ten minutes in, only for skipper Franco van der Merwe to knock on with the try-line in sight.
Moments later O’Connor found himself rather harshly yellow carded by referee Mark Lawrence and Jantjies took advantage to stroke home his fourth penalty of the night and move his side to within two points.
When Jantjies bagged a drop-goal the Lions took the lead for the first time in the game and the drummers in the crowd went into over-drive, but were almost immediately stunned back into silence by a superb piece of vision from Cameron Shepherd.
The star fullback collected a wayward clearance by the home side, chipped over advancing defenders to re-gather under pressure and release Mafi who had a clear run to the line from 30 metres out.
Shepherd then showed more fancy footwork by nailing a tricky conversion from wide out on the left to hand his side a six-point advantage.
When O’Connor emerged from the sin-bin to boot two more penalty goals the result was put beyond doubt.
Pat Dellit and Matt Brandon were handed their debuts as Graham cleared the subs bench to enable the entire match-day 22 to play a part in the club’s first win of the 2011 Super Rugby season.
The Emirates Western Force now head to Cape Town and a meeting with the Stormers at Newlands next Saturday.“It’s another big challenge. We’ll again work hard at training throughout the week to prepare well so that we can build on tonight’s performance,” Graham said.
2011 Super Rugby – Week 5
Lions 15 (Pen: Elton Jantjies 4; DG: Jantjies 1)
Emirates Western Force 27 (Tries: Nick Cummins, Alfie Mafi; Conv: Cameron Shepherd; Pen: James O’Connor 5)
Milestones: Nathan Sharpe – 136th Super Rugby Cap – equals all time competition record, Pat Dellit – Super Rugby & Emirates Western Force debut, Matt Brandon – Super Rugby & Emirates Western Force debut
Full time: Lions 15 – 27 Emirates Western Force
(forward a minute to miss the adverts and watch the highlights)