The Golden Lions overturned a 13-point deficit to overcome the Sharks 28-16 at Ellis Park on Friday and secure a semi-final berth. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
This clash was effectively a shootout for a playoff place, with the Sharks coming into the encounter just three points ahead of the fifth-placed Lions.
And while the Sharks put themselves in a strong position to progress to the knockout stage when they opened up a 13-0 lead soon after half-time, the Lions launched a courageous comeback, scoring three tries in the final half an hour to move into a top-four place.
An expected victory for Western Province over Boland later on Friday night ultimately saw the Lions finish fourth, while causing the Sharks to miss out on a playoff berth for the second successive year.
In a thrilling clash, there was some drama before the game had even begun, with the Sharks having been delayed in rush-hour traffic getting to the ground, which delayed kick-off by 10 minutes.
Besides this disruption to the Sharks’ pre-match preparations, the Duban-based side suffered another late blow when Springbok Lwazi Mvovo was ruled out of action due to an emergency appendix operation, with Wandile Mjekevu coming into his place on the wing.
Nevertheless, the Sharks would have been thrilled to take a 10-0 lead into half-time, with physical and committed defence from the visitors preventing the Lions from finding any real rhythm to their play.
Beyond that, the Sharks enjoyed impressive ascendancy at scrum time, where the return of Bok Lourens Adriaanse provided a timely boost against a Lions pack that has failed to consistently fire this season.
That scrum dominance reaped considerable reward for the Sharks as they executed a tighthead to win back possession from a Lions put-in, with scrumhalf Michael Claassens ultimately able to break around the blindside to score a crucial try just after the quarter-hour mark.
This sent the Sharks into a handy 10-point lead after an early penalty from Curwin Bosch, with neither side able to able to add any further points before half-time as errors continued to blight proceedings.
To make matters worse for the Lions, not only did they miss a couple of penalty shots at goal, but both Ross Cronjé and Rohan Janse van Rensburg lost the ball forward with the tryline at their mercy.
The Sharks could have added to their lead before the break, but two penalty attempts were pushed wide by Bosch, but he made up for that with a well-struck long-distance kick soon after the restart.
Yet, just as the Sharks pushed their lead out to 13 points, the Lions hit right back as Springbok Sevens player Kwagga Smith blitzed through the defence to score next to the posts.
The home side then received another lifeline when Sharks flanker Francois Kleinhans was shown a yellow card for a dangerous tackle, and in his absence, Lions centre Howard Mnisi was put away to score on the hour mark.
That made it a one-point ball game heading into the final quarter, but a 63rd-minute Andries Coetzee penalty then put the Lions into the lead for the first time, while a breakout try to Sylvian Mahuza suddenly sent the hosts into a nine-point lead with less than 10 minutes to play.
Before the final whistle, Coetzee struck one more penalty to ensure the Lions could celebrate a memorable comeback victory that keeps their title defence alive.
Golden Lions – Tries: Kwagga Smith, Howard Mnisi, Sylvian Mahuza. Conversions: Jaco van der Walt, Andries Coetzee. Penalties: Van der Walt, Coetzee (2).
Sharks – Try: Michael Claassens. Conversion: Curwin Bosch. Penalties: Bosch (3).
Golden Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Koch Marx, 13 Jaques Nel, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Ruaan Lerm, 7 Ruan Ackermann, 6 Kwagga Smith (c), 5 Bobby de Wee, 4 JP du Preez, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Malcolm Marx, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Fabian Booysen, 19 Cyle Brink, 20 Dillon Smit, 21 Howard Mnisi, 22 Sylvian Mahuza.
Sharks – 15 Curwin Bosch, 14 Rhyno Smith, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Wandile Mjekvu, 10 Inny Radebe, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Francois Kleinhans, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse , 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Franco Marais, 17 John-Hubert Meyer, 18 Stephan Lewies/Jean Droste, 19 Khaya Majola, 20 Stefan Ungerer, 21 Garth April, 22 Neil Maritz.
Photo: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images