The Lions produced a complete performance to beat the Sharks 24-9 on Saturday and record their first Super Rugby victory at Kings Park. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Earlier this season, the Lions beat the Chiefs to claim their first win over the Waikato side in Hamilton. Five weeks on, and Johan Ackermann's team has claimed another significant first: a win against the Sharks at Kings Park.
The result is a big one, and not just for historic reasons. The win has catapulted the Lions to the top of the Africa 2 conference.
The actual contest at Kings Park was largely one-sided. The Lions lived up to their reputation as powerful scrummagers and slick finishers. More significantly, they responded to their recent loss to the Crusaders by producing an improved defensive performance. After conceding six tries last week, the Lions did exceptionally well to keep the Sharks tryless.
The Sharks had a great opportunity to score the first points. Willie le Roux was over the line before Lionel Mapoe arrived and drove him back. The Lions escaped that situation with their tryline intact.
The Lions scrum dominated that of the Sharks. Dylan Smith outscrummed Springbok tighthead Coenie Oosthuizen. Julian Redelinghuys got the better of Test veteran Beast Mtawarira on several occasions. The Lions collective won a series of penalties at this set piece, and used the resultant possession to excellent effect.
When the Lions had the opportunity to take the ball wide and use their gifted ball players, they did so wholeheartedly. However, what marked this performance as particularly impressive was the quality of the decision-making, and the manner in which the Lions varied their play between running and kicking.
Surprisingly, the Lions kicked more than the Sharks in the first stanza. Those kicks were accurate, gaining territory and in some instances creating a further attacking chance.
By contrast, the Sharks made too many mistakes with the boot. Cobus Reinach, Joe Pietersen and even Le Roux had a game to forget.
The Lions capitalised on their first visit to the Sharks 22. Andries Ferreira placed the ball on the tryline, and Elton Jantjies converted.
Two further Jantjies penalties stretched the Lions' lead to 13 points. After 30 minutes, the Sharks were chasing the game.
The Sharks attempted to fight their way back into the contest. Costly mistakes, such as Pietersen's unforced error on his own tryline, prevented them from realising that objective.
The visitors scored their second try through Mapoe shortly after that knock-on, and went to the break with an 18-6 lead. Sadly for the Sharks, the mistake by Pietersen also coincided with a serious injury to star forward Marcell Coetzee. The Sharks flanker was helped from the field and subsequently taken to hospital for scans to his leg.
The introduction of Lourens Adriaanse at tighthead helped the Sharks scrum, but the hosts' attack continued to struggle. The Lions held their shape on defence, and were more than equal to the Sharks' kicking game.
Jantjies kicked a crucial penalty goal in the 68th minute to see the visitors leading 24-9 as the game approached the business end. The Sharks were more competitive in the second stanza, but the Lions were always in control of the contest.
The Lions were guilty of one big mistake at the end of the game. The visitors won a penalty on the stroke of full-time. They had the option to kick the ball for touch and set the lineout, with the ultimate aim of claiming the try-scoring bonus point. Unfortunately, Jantjies kicked the ball beyond touch and goal, and the opportunity was lost.
Nevertheless, the win remains an impressive result. The Lions have won three games on the road in 2016, and deservedly lead the Africa 2 conference.
Sharks – Penalties: Joe Pietersen (3).
Lions – Tries: Andries Ferreira, Lionel Mapoe. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalties: Jantjies (4).
Sharks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenie Oosthuizen, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Giant Mtyanda, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane.
Lions – 15 Jaco van der Walt, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Andries Coetzee, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images