Returning Butch shocks Sharks
LIONS coach John Mitchell laughed off suggestions that he was relieved after his side ended an 11-match Super 15 losing streak with a 38-28 win over the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday.
"I've been around the game too long, so this is not a relief for me. I'm just happy that we finally put our whole game together," Mitchell said.
"Our first-half performance was positive because our run-pass game was better. We've been in some arm-wrestles this season and yellow cards have cost us but we put our entire game together. Our mindset was run-pass before kicking."
The return of Butch James to inside centre after a four-week suspension gave the entire backline confidence; flyhalf Elton Jantjies had a pressure outlet and outside centre Lionel Mapoe was able to play more freely. Jantjies had a terrific game, but the real star was James.
His passes and reading of the game were superb, while his defence and tactical kicking also had the Sharks perplexed.
"Having Butch back was vital because you can't buy that kind of experience," said captain Josh Strauss. "He really calmed Elton down."
James' performance against the Sharks underlined his importance to the team and again emphasised his subtle skills.
Sharks coach John Plumtree was so angry after his team's lacklustre performance, particularly in the first half when they trailed 32-11 at the break, that he refused to be interviewed.
The defeat has probably cost the Sharks a place in the play-offs, though the Bulls' defeat by the Stormers has kept the door ajar.
The Sharks' assistant coach Grant Bashford was defiant: "It's not over yet, but we have to win our last two games with bonus points to have a chance."
The Lions' victory was a morale boost but it hasn't saved them from possible relegation to accommodate the Southern Kings next year.
Liam del Carme writes that the Bulls, who wore pink in support of the Cancer Association, will tell you the scourge can be beaten - but they'll have a far tougher task explaining how to vanquish the Stormers.
The Cape side completed a double over their old foes with a 19-14 victory at Loftus on Saturday, and if the hosts were left speechless, visiting coach Allister Coetzee was happy to bring some perspective.
"We know how to win," said Coetzee.
The Stormers were on the receiving end of a dominant Bulls pack but their defence again proved the difference.
"We pride ourselves on our defence. We stick to our guns and it works," said captain Jean de Villiers.
"We do what we do well," Coetzee concurred about his side's unremitting defence. "We defend and kick well. But it is also important that you take your opportunities."
And therein lies the rub for the Bulls, who failed to convert. Morne Steyn wasn't quite on song with the boot, missing a conversion and two drop-goals, while the hosts' failure to direct penalties at the posts in the final quarter came back to bite them.
"We believed we had the momentum at the time," said captain Pierre Spies.
The Bulls threw everything at the Stormers but could not add to Spies' first-half try.
The Stormers seemed to draw from the Bulls' growing exasperation and delivered a killer blow in the 73rd minute when Siya Kolisi burst through a gap, allowing Bryan Habana to break Loftus hearts with a try behind the posts.
"This is a great result for us," said Coetzee. "It's always a big challenge to win at Loftus and this is a quality Bulls side. Technical and tactical issues aside, you have to play with heart. We never gave up."
The Stormers go into the June break on top of the South African conference with every prospect of remaining there.