Bonus-point win for the defending champions
Veteran Springbok flyhalf Butch James put on a world class display of allround rugby as the Golden Lions beat the Free State Cheetahs 43-20 in their Currie Cup encounter on Saturday.
The first-round outing in Johannesburg saw the defending champion Lions outscore the Cheetahs by four tries to two, despite the visitors dominating possession and territory.
James was in sublime form as he produced a performance that would not have been out of place on the international stage.
He showed that No.10 remains his best position, having mostly played at inside centre for the Lions in Super Rugby this year.
The Lions showed more commitment and desire and on defence they were simply outstanding. - with the home team making over 100 tackles, missing only 10, while the Cheetahs missed 11 out of 50-odds tackles.
Despite the Cheetahs dominating possession and territory, the Lions always looked the more enterprising. The visitors will know they were a long way off the pace in this game and it is certainly 'back to the drawing board' for the men from Bloemfontein.
The Lions' scrum was the one dominant aspect of their game and they had the Cheetahs under constant pressure at this set piece. However, the home team's line-outs certainly needs some attention.
The Cheetahs were clearly intent on playing an expansive game, but they botched too many opportunities through poor execution. The Cheetahs' discipline also let them down all too often, while the other problem for the visitors was their poor out-of-hand kicking.
Both teams showed plenty of early enthusiasm, but lacked in terms of execution.
Inside the first 10 minutes the new Pitch Side Concussion Assessment (PSCA) protocols were in evidence, as Lions lock Hendrik Roodt was taken off after a high tackle. The PSCA, which works like the blood bin, sees a player suspected to be suffering from concussion removed from the field to take a standardised objective assessment test. If a “suspected concussion” is confirmed IRB Regulation 10 applies and the player is removed from the remainder of the match. The test takes no more than five minutes.
Butch James slotted a penalty to give the Lions and 3-0 lead and Roodt - who had jogged off - returned almost immediately.
The Cheetahs levelled the score in the 15th minute, Riaan Smit slotting the penalty - also after a high tackle.
However, the Lions produced the first try - a sublime piece of play by No.8 Derick Minnie, who followed up a kick by Andries Coetzee, plucked the ball out of the air and raced clear for a great score. James added the conversion for a 10-3 lead after 17 minutes.
The Cheetahs, who dominated possession throughout the first quarter, narrowed the gap to 6-10 when Smit slotted a second penalty - after the Lions were penalised for holding on in the tackle.
However, James reclaimed the seven-point lead with his second penalty kick of the match, after the Cheetahs transgressed under pressure from a strong surge by the home team - 13-6 just on the half-hour.
And it also saw Cheetahs captain Robert Ebersohn becoming the second PSCA candidate in the game after getting his head on the wrong side of a tackle, when he attempted to stop Waylon Murray.
The Lions then showed just what they are capable of when, after finally getting some possession, Andries Coetzee split the Cheetahs' defence with some sublime stepping and went over for his team's second try - a well-worked score that involved a lengthy build-up by the forwards. James made it 20-6 with the conversion.
It became 23-6, after the Cheetahs were penalised as their discipline continued to let them down - this time playing a man in the air at a line-out.
Even though a clever Butch James kick gave the Lions a chance for another score just before the break, Lionel Mapoe was unfortunate to knock the bubbling ball on over the line and the home team went into half-time with a 17-point lead.
The Cheetahs started the second half by bringing replacements Sarel Pretorius and Lucas Floors onto the field - looking for the spark that was missing before the break.
However, much like the first half the Cheetahs only managed to turn the ball over near the Lions' line - despite enjoying a surfeit of possession and attacking in waves.
They even had a try disallowed through a new trial rule - with the TMO ruling that there was a forward pass to Sarel Pretorius near the halfway line in the build-up to the scrumhalf running 50 metres for what he thought was a legitimate score.
It was not till the 55th minute that the Cheetahs got some reward for their territorial; dominance and the amount of attacking they did - with Baby Bok wing Raymond Rhule getting the benefit of a TMO ruling, after a 'flat' pass by Pretorius was ruled to be fine. Smit's conversion narrowed the gap to 10 points - 13-23.
The visitors' comeback suffered a temporary setback when powerful midfielder Andries Strauss was sent to the sin bin for a tip-tackle and James made it 26-13 with the resulting penalty.
However, Rhule showed why he is such a highly-rated player, when he stepped his man and left the Lions' covered for dead on his way to a second try. Smit's conversion made it 20-26, with 17 minutes left on the clock.
That brought the Lions alive and big lock Hendrik Roodt ran brilliantly onto a flat pass by James and then stepped the cover to go over for his team's third try. James, made it 33-20, as he kept his 100 percent goal-kicking record intact.
And the Bok No.10 made that 36-20, leaving the Cheetahs a mountain to climb, after the visitors were pinged for holding on in the tackle just metres from their line.
The Lions' bonus-point try came in the 78th minute, when replacement Ruan Combrinck stepped through a few half-hearted Cheetah tackles. Another replacement, Guy Cronje, kicked the conversion to put the seal on a deserved 43-20 win.
Man of the match: You can look at the loose trio of Derick Minnie, Josh Strauss and Cobus Grobbelaar, who were Trojans on defence and at the breakdown, while lock Hendrik Roodt had the game of his life. The front row of Jacobie Adriaanse, Callie Visagie and JC Janse van Rensburg were monstrous with the ball in hand. However, forgotten Springbok flyhalf Butch James showed he will not let the national team down. He put on display all the skills that made him such a huge factor during South Africa's 2007 World Cup victory - his tactical and goal-kicking were from the top shelve, while his distribution skills were right up there with the best.
For the Golden Lions:
Tries: Minnie, Coetzee, Roodt, Combrinck
Cons: James 3, G Cronje
Pens: James 5
For the Free State Cheetahs:
Tries: Rhule 2
Cons: Smit 2
Pens: Smit 2
Yellow card: Andries Strauss (Free State Cheetahs, 59 - foul play, tip tackle)
Golden Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 JR Esterhuizen, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Waylon Murray, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Derick Minnie, 7 Josh Strauss, 6 Cobus Grobbelaar, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Hendrik Roodt, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg (captain).
Replacements: 16 Francois du Toit, 17 CJ van der Linde, 18 Willie Britz, 19 Warren Whiteley, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Guy Cronje, 22 Ruan Combrinck.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn (captain), 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Riaan Smit, 9 Pieter van Zyl, 8 Davon Raubenheimer, 7 Pieter Labuschagné, 6 Johannes Prinsloo, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Waltie Vermeulen, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Hercu Liebenberg, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Francois Uys, 19 Lucas Floors, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Phillip Snyman.
Referee: Marius Jonker
Assistant referees: Joey Salmans, Cobus Wessels