United Rugby Championship

Lions roar enough to get United Rugby Champs campaign off to fine start

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Rabz Maxwane. (Photo by Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images)
Rabz Maxwane. (Photo by Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images)

An attack of nerves nearly saw them blow it, but the Lions commenced South Africa's entry into European franchise rugby with a thrilling 38-26 victory over Zebre in Parma on Friday night.

Ivan van Rooyen's troops haven't come into the United Rugby Championship (URC) with particularly high hopes - at least from outsiders - after a year of iffy results yet a sumptuous first half performance suggests there's much to work with in this group.

Indeed, the Lions went to half-time boasting an unexpected if deserved 35-0 advantage, scarcely putting a foot wrong and delivering some outstanding attacking play.

Most importantly, they did so by playing the percentages well.

Starved of possession in the opening ten minutes, the Lions defence - mentored by new guru and Bok legend Jaque Fourie - held up well, while the wiles of hooker Jaco Visagie and the returning Jaco Kriel made life a misery for the Italians at the breakdown.

It was Kriel's bustling run from a set-piece that allowed his team to score the first try in URC history, flyhalf Jaden Hendrikse throwing a sublime delayed pass to wing Jamba Ulengo, who streaked in on the right.

Good counterattacking play had the Lions back in their opponents' half moments later, a slick line-out and snappy pass from halfback Andre Warner to midfielder and captain Burger Odendaal badly exposed the Zebre defence.

And the good times simply kept on rolling.

From a turnover in their own half, the Lions upped the pace, went down the line and No 13 Wandisile Simelane produced a floated pass of similar quality as Hendrikse to find winger Rabz Maxwane, who showed searing pace.

Continuing to conduct their exits well and heaping pressure on the hosts from high kicks, Maxwane was in for a second after Odendaal delivered a fine chip behind the defence before Visagie feasted on another poorly dealt collection to barnstorm his way to the line from 40m out.

Perhaps surprised by their showing, the Lions fell flat in the second half.

They started to isolate their runners, lacked defensive organisation and their discipline waned as the Italians, spurred on by a enthusiastic crowd, began their fightback.

Zebre sped up the game and showed some belated skill as the found holes with alarming regularity, culminating in three tries from close range - including an embarrassing penalty try for a collapsed maul that saw rookie flanker Sibusiso Sangweni spend time in the sin bin.     

But the deficit was just too much to claw back from as the Lions regained some form of composure to hold out.

They will, however, need to address their game management if they are to bark with the bigger dogs.

Point scorers:

Zebre - (0) 26

Try: Carlo Canna, penalty try, Tommaso Boni, Oliviero Fabiani

Conversions: Canna (2)

Lions - (35) 38

Tries: Rabz Maxwane (2), Jamba Ulengo, Burger Odendaal, Jaco Visagie

Conversions: Jordan Hendrikse (5)

Penalty: Hendrikse

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