Ruan Combrinck kicked a 55m penalty in the 78th minute as the Lions completed a thrilling 23-21 comeback win over the Sharks in Saturday's quarter-final at Ellis Park. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
What a game this was! Not only was it filled with incredible scenes of thrilling drama, but the high quality of rugby ensured it will be regarded as one of the games of the season.
The Sharks deserve plenty of plaudits as they looked set to complete a massive upset based on sublime defence, but in a dramatic finish, Combrinck showed immense composure to slot a long-distance penalty that proved to be the difference.
It was somewhat ironic when one considers the Lions' goal-kicking had been awful all afternoon, with Elton Jantjies missing two penalties and a couple of conversions, while Combrinck also missed one three-pointer.
Yet, when it mattered most, Combrinck kicked the Lions to a victory that will see last year's runners-up progress to a home semi-final against the Hurricanes.
The first half of this encounter was a fascinating affair. Although the Lions made their intentions clear from the outset as they kicked an early penalty to the corner, while camping in the opposition 22, they were repeatedly repelled by the Sharks’ storming defence.
That never-say-die Sharks defence would prove to be the standout feature of the opening stanza as the visitors threw themselves into contact to leave the Lions looking completely rattled.
In particular, Jantjies looked to be thrown off his game, with the flyhalf missing two penalties within the opening half an hour, while his loose pass ultimately enabled Sharks winger Kobus van Wyk to dart away for an opportunistic try in the 11th minute.
Although the Sharks had to make as many as 34 tackles to 14 within the opening quarter, their physicality in the tackle regularly prevented the Lions from getting over the gainline, while their committed linespeed applied plenty of pressure.
With the Lions unable to get any rhythm to their play, the Sharks just kept the scoreboard ticking over, with Curwin Bosch slotting a drop goal and two penalties to hand the visitors a shock 14-3 lead at half-time.
The break always appeared likely to provide the Lions with an opportunity to regain some composure, and they made the perfect start to the second half when Franco Mostert barged over the tryline in the 46th minute.
That score came just after opposing lock Stephan Lewies had been sent to the sin bin after repeated team infringements, and in his absence, Lions flanker Jaco Kriel also went over to score.
However, the wayward kicking of Elton Jantjies continued, with his second missed conversion enabling the Sharks to hang onto a one-point lead at the hour mark.
Yet the momentum had clearly shifted in favour of the home team, with the Lions then launching a typical breakaway that ultimately saw Lionel Mapoe dot down under the posts.
It appeared to provide the opportunity for the Lions to finally take control of proceedings, but the Sharks came roaring back as Daniel du Preez went over to score from the back of a dominant scrum just after Mostert had been shown a yellow card after repeated indiscretions.
That score saw the Sharks restore a one-point lead that they clung onto heading into the dramatic final stages, but then came the moment of magic from Combrinck.
Lions – Tries: Franco Mostert, Jaco Kriel, Lionel Mapoe. Conversion: Jantjies. Penalties: Elton Jantjies, Ruan Combrinck.
Sharks – Tries: Kobus van Wyk, Daniel du Preez. Conversion: Curwin Bosch. Penalties: Bosch (2). Drop goal: Bosch.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Sharks – 15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 S'busiso Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt (c), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais/Stephan Coetzee, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Jean Droste, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Jeremy Ward.
Photo: Anne Laing