It was a massive Monday afternoon slog between the two top teams in the SA Rugby Under-21 Championship, but in the end the Xerox Lions outlasted the defending champions, the Vodacom Blue Bulls, to remain in contention for the final with a 26-17 victory at Emirates Airline Park.
The two packs of forwards had a proper go at each other, but in the end the Xerox Lions probably had the upper hand upfront, played their territory better and used their opportunities, while the Vodacom Blue Bulls made too many mistakes, were ill-disciplined and seemed lethargic at stages.
The visitors from north of the Jukskei river scored three tries to two, but it was the boot of Luke Rossouw that proved the difference, with the Xerox Lions inside centre kicking four second half penalty goals and two conversions for a personal haul of 16 points.
The Xerox Lions started this match against their Gauteng neighbours like a house on fire, realising that a win will keep alive their hopes of reaching the final.
And the Xerox Lions’ tighthead prop, Asenathi Ntlabakanye, was the man who hurt the men in blue with two tries in the opening 10 minutes.
The former Junior Springbok prop’s first try was an opportunistic piece of play from an over-thrown lineout, and a few minutes later he barged over under the uprights after a good build-up by the Xerox Lions.
It was just the start the Xerox Lions had wanted, as they took a 14-0 lead after just nine minutes.
Try as they might, the Vodacom Blue Bulls struggled to get going with stern Xerox Lions defence and unforced errors keeping the men from Pretoria scoreless for most of the first half.
In fact, they seemed to get frustrated as the Xerox Lions fluffed a number of promising attacks, with some negative play creeping into the hosts’ defensive play.
After 30 minutes, the referee, Divan Uys, sent the Xerox Lions’ Shaun Baxter (fullback) to the bin for repeated infringements and the Vodacom Blue Bulls used this numeric advantage to work Stravino Jacobs (wing) over in the left corner, with Qamani Kota (replacement fullback) putting in a superb run in the build-up to the try.
This try saw the teams go into the break with the hosts leading by 14-5, but the Vodacom Blue Bulls were getting into their stride as they were looking to secure a place in the final as they have a bye in the last round.
But the Xerox Lions had other ideas, with Rossouw adding the first two of his four penalty goals early in the second stanza to stretch his team’s lead to 20-5.
The Vodacom Blue Bulls came back strong though and closed the gap to just three points with two converted tries in four minutes.
First Jay Cee Nel crashed over from a good period of sustained attack after a lineout on the home team’s 5m-line, and then David Coetzer scored from a turnover deep in the Vodacom Blue Bulls’ own half when the Xerox Lions lost the ball just outside the Pretorians’ 22, and they quickly counter-attacked to send the flyhalf over under the sticks.
But with mistakes creeping back into the men in blue’s game, Rossouw stepped up to the plate and added another penalty goal just before the second water-break to give his team some breathing space on the score board.
Despite getting their hands on the ball quite often, the Vodacom Blue Bulls still lost possession with silly mistakes, and with less than five minutes remaining, Rossouw added three more points, all but securing victory for the Xerox Lions.
Xerox Lions – Tries: Asenathi Ntlabakanye (2); Conversions: Luke Rossouw (2); Penalty goals: Rossouw (4).
Vodacom Blue Bulls – Tries: Stravino Jacobs, Jay Cee Nel, David Coetzer; Conversion: Qamani Kota.