Lions 39 Blues 36
An incredible comeback from the Blues against the Lions in Johannesburg fell just short this morning, John Kirwan's men again leaving themselves too much to do after a poor start.
The Lions ran out 39-36 victors, thanks once again to an excellent goalkicking display from Marnitz Boshoff, and, while the Blues failed to turn up in the first half, going behind 17-0 in the six minutes before halftime, the defeat was tinged with controversy.
The yellow cards handed out to Charlie Faumuina, for being offside at an attacking Lions' maul, and Tom Donnelly, for a dangerous ruck clean-out, were reasonably clear-cut, but the decision to award the Lions a try in the second half as the Blues roared back into it was not.
With the score at 23-15 on the hour mark following the two quick tries to Charles Piutau and replacement halfback Bryn Hall which had given the Blues a decent foothold on the match, the Lions mounted a counterattack, with centre Deon van Rensburg looking likely to score before Piutau knocked the ball from his grasp on the line. Normally such an act would have been seen as a knock-on, but referee Stuart Berry, after consulting the TV match official, ruled a try to fullback Coenie van Wyk, who had dived on the loose ball.
Still the Blues came back, though, Frank Halai, George Moala and Benji Marshall scoring tries to set up a thrilling finish.
The Blues' five tries and close margin of defeat earned them two bonus points so they at least earned something tangible from their South African trip, but the failure to impose themselves on the Lions early was costly, something skipper Luke Braid acknowledged afterwards.
"We've had a problem with that,'' he said after similar starts against the Highlanders, Crusaders and Bulls. "To our credit we came back strongly but two yellow cards and 20-0 down, it's hard to come back from that.
"As a team we've got to learn to get tougher and play more clinically when the going gets tough.''
Kirwan's decision to play Marshall at fullback and move Piutau to the wing after the loss to the Bulls had mixed results.
Marshall scored a good individual try at the finish, but looked mostly tentative. An attempted clearance was charged down in the second half which led to more points for the Lions.
Piutau worked his way into the game but seems wasted on the wing. Another decision Kirwan must ponder on the flight home is whether to start halfback Bryn Hall over Piri Weepu against the Cheetahs at Eden Park. Hall was superb when he came on in the second half, scoring a try and making the long break from deep which led to Halai's.
Noakes did little to suggest he is a better option than Simon Hickey at first-five, while Pita Ahki and George Moala failed to convince as midfield partners. The Blues are likely to welcome in All Black Ma'a Nonu for the match against the Cheetahs.
The problems at Ellis Park started in the pack though, with only Faumuina and Patrick Tuipulotu, who went off in the first half with a leg injury, impressing. The scrum was pushed around by the Lions, a tighthead conceded on attack. There is attacking potential to burn in the backline but the inability of the forwards to put them on the front foot remains a weakness.
Lions 39 (Faf de Klerk, Coutnall Skosan, Coenie van Wyk tries; Marnitz Boshoff 3 cons, 4 pens, 2 dropped goals)
Blues 36 (Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Bryn Hall, George Moala, Benji Marshall tries; Chris Noakes 2 cons, pen, Simon Hickey 2 cons)