Johannesburg — The United Rugby Championship was welcomed back to Ellis Park in a scrappy affair that had moments of entertainment, but which was more a frustrating stop-start exercise between the Lions and Dragons on Sunday.
Nevertheless, the Joburgers will be relieved that they finally secured a home victory in the URC this season, however untidy it might have been.
It was a bit of an arm-wrestle in the first 30 minutes, Jordan Hendrikse and Sam Davies trading penalties for a narrow 9-6 lead to the hosts. The Dragons should have made something more of their opportunities after the harsh sanction of Emmanuel Tshituka for tripping in this period, when he stumbled clumsily into an attacking Dragons player.
No harm, however, was done while he was in the bin, while the Lions also continued to fluff their chances on attack while he sat on the sidelines due to poor execution.
A brilliant 50-22 by Quan Horn would eventually result in the opening try as the Lions attacked through their maul, forcing captain Ross Moriarty to receive a yellow card in the 31st minute. From the following attacking play, and using one-off runners as their main tactic, Ruhan Straeuli crashed over the whitewash, with Hendrikse slotting over the conversion.
The strategy effectively limited the hosts to 10-man rugby, their backline receiving scant opportunity to attack during the first half. Perhaps they were a bit out of match practice or they decided to rather grind down their opponents.
Either way, if they were battling with fitness and uninspired play after a month-long break, the Dragons were positively caked in rustiness. They looked disorganised at times in attack — lacking a cutting edge — and made some fundamental errors that ensured the Lions — despite their deficiencies — took a handy 13-point lead into the shed at halftime.
Henco van Wyk was slightly lucky to escape a red card early in the second half, the officials deciding there were mitigating factors when he made contact with Lloyd Fairbrother’s head while attempting a cleanout. This time, the Dragons did make the one-man advantage count, Patelesio Tomkinson scoring in the corner in the 45th minute.
But then, the Dragons’ fragmented approach put them under immense pressure, the Lions striking back immediately, although scrappily, for Hendrikse — who wracked up 21 points in the game and received the man-of-the-match award — to clean up loose ball to score.
Nevertheless, the Dragons found some fluidity in attack and crossed the tryline soon afterwards, only for the ball to pop up to deny them. The Lions did try to involve their backs more in the second half, but made some unfortunate errors on attack.
It was, therefore, up to their pack to wrestle the clash away from the Dragons, JP Smith all but making the win safe with a try in the 72nd minute. Che Hope did score on debut to close the game for the Dragons, but too many mistakes ultimately cost them the match.
Lions 33 — Tries: Straeuli, Hendrikse, JP Smith; Conversions: Hendrikse (2), Lombard; Penalty: Hendrikse (3); Drop Goal: Hendrikse; Yellow Card: Tshituka, Van Wyk
Dragons 25 — Tries: Tomkinson, Benjamin, Hope; Conversions: Hanrahan (2); Penalties: Davies (2); Yellow card: Moriarty