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Brilliant, utterly brilliant! There is no better way to describe what the Lions were in becoming the first SA franchise team to win in Galway and in so doing complete a perfect weekend for the local challenge in the United Rugby Championship (URC).

In beating Ulster, the Sharks showed that their much maligned coach John Plumtree had a point when he lamented the fact he’d been denied use until now of his full strength pack. The Stormers produced their customary flair and also their habit of leaving points on the table in comfortably beating Edinburgh. The Bulls were sloppy but were always going to get the job done by banking a full house of log points away against the Dragons.

But it was the Lions that produced the statement performance of the weekend as they confirmed the way the plans appear to be coming together at the Johannesburg union are not a mirage. When there was a shower of criticism on the Sharks coach after the recent loss to the Lions, I felt maybe people were guilty of underestimating just how good the Lions are becoming. The Galway performance surely has now underlined that in indelible ink.

They have a confusing habit of producing their best performances away from home. The two recent trans-Jukskei derbies were a good example of that. At Loftus the Lions were desperately unlucky not to win. A few weeks later when they hosted the Bulls they just weren’t at the races and were well beaten.

At a time where commitment is divided across so many competitions, there will always be questions about whether the Lions have the depth needed to graduate back to where they were a few years ago when they made three Super Rugby finals in a row. It also doesn’t help that the Sharks are starting to treat the Lions as the feeder union that Free State used to be to them (mind you it also works the other way — note how well Sanele Nohamba and Marius Louw have done since moving up the N3).

But the Lions policy of building through backing their youngsters and keeping them together, with a little help from some veterans, does appear to be bearing fruit. Those of us who don’t work that closely with the Lions are often confused by the stories that come out of that region. Such as a year ago when there were rumours of huge dissension within the Lions ranks, only for the Lions to get it together for a win at Loftus that same week.

There was certainly no denying the commitment shown by the Lions players against Connacht, with the rucks and mauls and the defensive hits being carried out with earth shattering intensity.

When they went down to 14 men after 16 minutes to one of those unfortunate red cards that are a blight on the modern game, you wouldn’t have given the Lions much hope of winning at a venue no SA team had won at since Jake White’s Springboks won a warm-up game there before the 2007 World Cup.

Maybe Connacht thought so too, for they seemed shell-shocked by the Lions’ energy and physicality, the pace with which they executed their plays. When what initially looked like a good try to Nohamba shortly before halftime was cancelled by the TMO, it felt like that might be the chance gone for the Lions. Surely Connacht would regroup and make their numerical advantage count in the second half.

The hosts did win more ball in the third quarter, but the Lions’ defence just refused to budge. And once they’d crossed for an intercept try to put daylight between the teams, it was one-way traffic after that, with the Lions drawing away with some sublime attack.

The win puts the Lions into the top eight with just six games to go. They have another away game against Ospreys to play this weekend and then it is back to the dry, rarefied atmosphere of Johannesburg until early June, which is when they finish off their campaign with what could well become a decisive derby against the Stormers in Cape Town.

If the Lions can become more consistent than they have been at making the altitude advantage they enjoy on their home ground count for them, there is no reason that game can’t be a quasi play-off for a place in the top four and home ground advantage in the quarterfinal.

The Stormers are looking good for a top-four spot and will be favoured to make it if they beat Ulster in Cape Town on Saturday, but there is only one point separating the fifth-placed Stormers from the eighth-placed Lions. Both teams are playing great rugby and while the Glasgow Warriors will have other ideas, they do still have to come to SA, as do fourth-placed Munster. All of which suggests it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility there could be three SA teams in the top four when the season ends.

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