If Lions coach John Mitchell had started his team’s game against the Stormers at Newlands with any hair on his head it would have been gone by the final whistle, such must have been the frustration he felt at his team’s 19-16 defeat.
For the second successive week of the 2011 Super Rugby season the Lions outscored more highly rated opponents in tries but yet came tantalisingly close on the scoreboard. For the second successive week they also left points on the table through missed Elton Jantjes kicks that really should have been slotted and which were the ultimate difference between winning and losing.
The Stormers looked rusty, perhaps an inevitability considering they started the season 80 minutes after their opponents did, and they looked dead and buried when Lions fullback Jaco Taute slid in at the right corner off an inside pass from wing Michael Killian with a quarter of the match to go.
That put the Lions seven points clear in a low-scoring, close, and typically physical South African derby.
But although they looked unsteady at the time and ready to be put away by the Lions, the introduction of Peter Grant from the bench appeared to steady the Stormers.
He kicked a penalty in the 65th minute to cut the deficit to four points, and then after a long period of sustained attacking, the same player kicked a penalty into the corner for the lineout.
With less than six minutes to go, Andries Bekker soared high for the take, and the Stormers, who seldom looked like scoring a try in the game, surged over the line from a driving maul, with reserve flanker Pieter Louw being credited with the touchdown.
Louw was on for skipper Schalk Burger, who was off the field due to a knee injury, the move later being described as a precautionary measure.
Jean de Villiers captained the side in the second half and he deserves praise for the way he marshalled his troops in the last quarter of an hour, which was when they effectively won a game they should have lost.
It was the second successive game against Super Rugby standard opponents that the Stormers have won by coming from behind.
They did something similar against the Sharks in the Neo Africa Tri-Series a couple of weeks ago. So maybe they are learning to win the games they should lose, which they say is what distinguishes champions from also-rans.
That, though, will be small consolation for the Stormers, as for most of the way they were second best, and clearly have a lot of work to do ahead of some of the tougher obstacles that lie ahead.
The Stormers looked okay in the first 10 minutes, with newcomer Gary van Aswegen kicking a fourth-minute penalty, but the momentum shifted the Lions’ way in the 16th minute when Schalk Burger shot up on Josh Strauss and the Lions flanker cleverly created the overlap situation by popping the pass over his shoulder.
The bulk of the yardage from the run was made by hooker Bandise Maku, who made his way up the left touchline to draw the last defender before transferring inside for Waylon Murray to score.
Jantjes missed the conversion, the first of several misses that helped keep the Stormers in the game. What also helped keep the Stormers in the game was the cover tackle just metres from the Stormers which prevented an almost-certain try just moments after the first, with Jantjes setting up the opportunity with a brilliant break after Van Aswegen slipped the tackle.
The Lions were awarded a penalty and this was one that Jantjes certainly should have kicked. By this stage the momentum was definitely with the Lions, with the Stormers being placed under pressure in the scrums, with either a free kick or a penalty being awarded against them at all of the first three set-pieces.
With the Lions starting to dominate possession it looked like the Stormers were scrambling, and even more so when hooker Deon Fourie was binned for a repeat infringement after 24 minutes.
But while the Stormers were making mistakes, so were the Lions, who just gave the ball away too often, and who could not capitalise on the number of set-piece opportunities they had from within the Stormers 22.
Where the penalty count had gone against the Stormers in the first quarter, it heavily favoured them in the second quarter and for the rest of the match, and two good kicks from Van Aswegen, one from the angle on halftime and the other from 45 metres, put them ahead 9-8 at the break.
The prospect of the Lions kicking themselves for the mistakes they made strengthened soon after halftime as the Stormers surged onto the attack and camped near the Lions’ try-line for a long period.
But the Stormers made it difficult for themselves by eschewing a kickable penalty, and were perhaps seduced at the time by the way they had suddenly become the dominant force in the scrums.
The Lions were awarded a penalty, forced their way out of their own half and were almost immediately presented with an opportunity that this time Jantjes converted to put his team two points ahead.
Then came a good try to Taute and it looked like the Lions were on their way to victory.
But the Stormers had other ideas.
Stormers 19 – Try: Pieter Louw; Conversion: Peter Grant; Penalties: Gary van Aswegen (3) and Peter Grant.
Lions 16 – Tries: Waylon Murray and Jaco Taute; Penalties: Elton Jantjes (2)