Flying Lions Staying Grounded After Epic Win
It’s taken Celebration Lions just five games of the Massetti Cup to eclipse their 2016 win tally, which they did last weekend via their heart-stopping 21-20 victory over previously unbeaten Hornby Panthers.
The 2014 grand finalists landed in fifth the following season, while the departure of Rockcote Canterbury Bulls prop Chris Bamford, along with sabbaticals taken by the likes of Kyle Leka, Abraham Fonomoa and Francis Tuiletufuga, saw the Lions finish second-last in 2016 with just three wins.
Expectations for the Lions’ 2017 campaign – from the outside at least – were muted thanks to another mini-exodus, with Phil Nati, Eddie Enosa, Jack Mundy and Jake Vincent all leaving their ranks. But after a 46-22 loss to Papanui Tigers in the opening round, the Lions have won every game to surge into a share of the premiership lead.
“(I’m) really happy. Obviously we got off to a bad start against Papanui, we probably weren’t quite ready yet,” Lions coach Steve Fenika said.
“But the boys are slowly building into our season and we managed to put in a good performance again on Saturday (against the Panthers).”
Fenika pointed to a couple of age-old foundation blocks for rugby league success as the keys to their remarkable turnaround.
“Attitude and defence,” he said.
“We let ourselves down with our defence against Papanui, so we’ve done a lot of work and it just came down to an adjustment.
“The boys are really enjoying their footy now and defence is a big part of it.”
The Lions recorded tight wins over Halswell (26-20), Aranui (16-10) and Northern (28-23) – clubs who are sporting 1-4 records after five matches – and there’s no doubt the dramatic upset of the heavyweight Panthers was a massive step forward for the rising club.
It was a performance that confirmed to Fenika that the Lions belong in the finals discussion.
“We talked about that after the game, when we perform like that we can mix it with any of the big teams.
“It’s about bringing that same attitude week in, week out and putting in a performance like that.”
The underdog Lions built on a 10-4 halftime lead and looked to have had the two competition points wrapped up in the latter stages, before a Panthers try locked up the scores with only two minutes left.
But in a moment that will be hard to top in the 2017 regular season, five-eighth Tama Walker nailed a long-range field goal in the dying seconds to pull off a stunning victory. The pulsating finish has only added to the Lions’ sense of belief.
“That was our best performance of the season,” Fenika said.
“The other three (wins) we weren’t performing to our best, but Hornby always get the best out of Celebration and I’m really happy the boys stepped up.
“It was a bit of a grand final feel after that kick went over. Hornby came back like they always do, they always play for 80 minutes and they scored that last try with only a couple of minutes to go.
“But we knew if we could ‘D’ up hard in that set from the kick-off we’d have one last set, and luckily we did and Tama kicked it from 40 out – it never really looked like missing.”
While the Lions have had plenty of star players move on in the last couple of years, the return of Kasi Leka, Fonomoa (both work) and Tuiletufuga (surgery) from one-season sabbaticals, and Walker and Teariki Tangiiti coming back from rival clubs, has set them up for a run at the 2017 title.
“Having all those guys back has helped big time, because we lost a lot of experience last year, but we got it back for this year, plus the young ones we blooded (in 2016),” Fenika said.
“It’s a good mix there and we’re looking to keep moving forward.”
Centre Kasi Leka and lock Kyle Leka co-lead the Lions’ tryscoring charts with four meat pies, while their brother, Taniela, has been in fine form at fullback as the trio set about creating a family dynasty at the club to match Linwood’s Sauni brothers. Meanwhile, a fourth brother, Solomone, is making his mark with the Lions’ Canterbury Cup outfit.
But the Lions know they must keep their feet on the ground in the wake of their momentous win, with a tough assignment against Riccarton Knights – who sit last on the ladder but are coming off their first win of the season – on the agenda this Saturday.
“We talked about it at training that we need to bring the same attitude as when we play the top teams,” Fenika said.
“No disrespect to Riccarton, but it can be easy to switch off when you play the bottom-place team. We can’t do that, we’ve just got to show each team the same respect and turn up with the same attitude and do the job.”
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE