The Golden Lions got their 2011 Currie Cup campaign off to a winning start, but they were far from convincing in their 31-27 triumph over the Pumas in Johannesburg on Friday.
The visitors from Witbank matched the Lions with three tries apiece, but flyhalf Burton Francis saved the day with a near flawless kicking performance. He missed just one of his seven kicks at goal, landing two conversions and four penalties.
Lions captain Doppies la Grange said his team will take the win, "even though it was an ugly effort".
His Pumas counterpart, Corne Steenkamp, said the consolation in defeat is that they took a bonus point out of the game, away from home.
He said that a "crucial pass or two" may have cost them victory.
"We need to show more patience under pressure," Steenkamp said.
In the first half the Pumas played with a lot more fervour, while the Lions looked to be going along at half-pace - a pale shadow of the team that ended the Super Rugby season with a 30-all draw against the Sharks last month.
The Lions also did not help themselves by making a host of unforced handling errors, not to mention the shocking options they took for the better part of the game.
The Pumas, who had to fight for their survival in a promotion-relegation battle at the end of last season, showed they will be a threat to any of the contenders who do not take them serious.
They may not have the big name stars, but they certainly have the heart and desire - aspects that were sadly lacking from the Lions' make-up.
A scrum penalty inside the first three minutes, against Dawie Steyn, allowed Burton Francis to open the scoring. The Lions were quickly on the front foot again, but the Lions butchered a try - with a forward pass to Jaco Taute and an open tryline ahead.
The Pumas were next to score, flyhalf Ricardo Croy slotting a sweetly-struck drop-goal after they failed to breach the Lions' defence - despite taking the ball through numerous phases.
The Lions were far more effective with the ball in hand, and in the 15th minute prop Jacobie Adriaanse barged his way over after a number of pick-'n-go moves. He required the TMO to confirm the score, but once Francis added the conversion the Lions' could look back on a worthy 10-3 lead.
However, the Pumas were now getting to grips with the pace of the game and just as the first quarter came to and end quick hands allowed wing Ashwin Scott to go over in the left corner. Croy's conversion levelled the scores again.
The Lions, going back to their very effective multi-phase game, won a penalty and with the end of the first half-hour approaching Francis regained the lead.
Again the Lions let themselves down, some shoddy defending letting centre Pieter Engelbrecht in for a soft try and Croy's conversion giving the visitors a 17-13 lead with the end of the first half approaching.
A penalty for offside late moments later allowed Francis to narrow the gap to just one point - which was also the half-time score, 17-16 to the Pumas.
It got worse very quickly for the home team immediately after the restart, as Pumas lock Marius Coetzer strolled over after ripping the ball off the Lions. It started with fullback Jaco Taute and Lionel Mapoe getting themselves in a tangle from a pretty innocuous kick ahead. Croy's conversion made it 24-16.
Completely against the run of play Francis scored the Lions' second try, an intercept and 50-metre dash. His conversion made it a one-point game again. And Francis regained the lead minutes later, when the Pumas went offside right in front of their posts - 26-24 with a bit more than 20 minutes left in the game.
Croy soon enough regained the lead, from a penalty for a high tackle.
The Lions finally seemed to shift into as higher gear and Alwyn Hollenbach scored the third try with just over 10 minutes remaining. Francis couldn't slot the touchline conversion, but the Lions held a slender 31-27 lead.
And the home team was forced to defence, which they did courageously, for the last 10 minutes.
But it was far from convincing and there awaits plenty of work for the team from Johannesburg.
Man of the match: You are always tempted to give this to a player from the winning tea, but our aware goes to Pumas lock Marius Coetzer, for his physical presence, high workrate and the manner in which he made his more illustrious opponents look pedestrian.
For the Golden Lions:
Tries: Adriaanse, Francis, Hollenbach
Cons: Francis 2
Pens: Francis 4
For the Pumas:
Tries: Scott, Engelbrecht, Coetzer
Cons: Croy 3
Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Dylan Des Fountain, 13 Alwyn Hollenbach, 12 Doppies La Grange (captain), 11 Lionel Mapoe, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Joshua Strauss, 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Wikus van Heerden, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Pat Cilliers.
Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Johan Snyman, 19 Dries van Schalkwyk, 20 Michael Bondesio, 21 Hein Cronje, 22 Michael Killian.
Pumas: 15 MJ Mentz, 14 Deon Scholtz, 13 JW Jonker, 12 Pieter Engelbrecht, 11 Ashwin Scott, 10 Ricardo Croy, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Christo le Roux, 7 Jaco Bouwer, 6 Corne Steenkamp (captain), 5 Marius Coetzer, 4 Rudi Mathee, 3 Ashley Buys, 2 Marthinus van der Westhuizen, 1 Dawie Steyn.
Replacements: 16 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17 Brett Nel, 18 Willem Serfontein, 19 RW Kember, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Tiaan Marx, 22 Carl Bezuidenhout.
Referee: Stuart Berry
Assistant referees: Sindile Mayende, Johan Greeff
TMO: JC Fortuin
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