The Lions withstood a late surge by the Sharks to win 23-21 in Johannesburg on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Lions will be more than a little relieved. They should have closed this game out. As it was, they allowed the Sharks to hit back late in the piece, first through a try by replacement prop Thomas du Toit, and then after the hooter when they conceded a penalty inside their own half.
Sharks flyhalf Fred Zeilinga had an opportunity to punish the Lions when he lined up the kick at goal, which to be fair, was as difficult as they come for a right-footed kicker. Taken from more than 50m out and close to the right-hand touchline, it was always going to be a tough ask.
But the best kickers convert these opportunities and win games for their teams. Zeilinga's attempt drifted wide, and that didn't come as much of a surprise considering he had missed two earlier shots on goal.
Some will say it was an improvement on the Sharks' most recent performance against the Crusaders. In that fixture, the Sharks conceded eight tries and 52 points, as well as a red card. On this occasion at Ellis Park, they leaked 29 fewer points and five fewer tries, and conceded a yellow instead of a red.
But to accept that argument is to embrace a loser's mentality. The Sharks battled for much of this contest against the Lions, and an instant of indiscipline robbed them of momentum once again at a crucial juncture of the game.
They travelled to Johannesburg without a host of Springboks, and were dealt a further blow when No 8 Ryan Kankowski withdrew due to a knee injury. As a result, Willem Alberts was pushed into the starting lineup and lent the Durban-based franchise some impetus at the gainline in the first 40 minutes.
But one man could not compensate for the team's lack of cohesion on defence. Their defensive frailties were exposed in the first quarter when Faf de Klerk broke the line twice. Somehow, they survived that assault, and kept the Lions tryless for as many as 39 minutes.
Renaldo Bothma rounded off a good period of play for the Sharks, and Lwazi Mvovo showed exceptional speed to finish the Sharks' second clear opportunity. Had the Sharks kept their foot on the Lions' throat, they would have gone to the break 14-6 ahead.
But the Lions hit back in the period before and after half-time to score 17 unanswered points. Howard Mnisi crashed over the line before the end of the first stanza, and De Klerk scored early in the second. Harold Vorster punished some woeful Sharks defence thereafter to add a third for the hosts, and at that stage, a comfortable win was on the cards.
The chances of a big win for the Lions increased when the Sharks infringed one time too many. Referee Stuart Berry ruled the Sharks had been living on the edge for some time, and that André Esterhuizen's high hit on Andries Coetzee was the last straw. The No 12 was shown a yellow card in the 59th minute, and with his departure it seemed the Sharks were dead and buried.
Give credit to the Sharks, while they were outclassed by a better Lions team, they never gave up. The Lions made the mistake of assuming the game was safe at 23-14, and kicked a penalty to touch in search of the four-try bonus point. The Sharks managed to deny the Lions, and secure a turnover.
The Sharks survived the period of sanction without conceding a single point. They scored through Du Toit in the 78th minute, and Zeilinga's conversion brought them within sight of an unlikely victory.
But it was the Lions who celebrated as Zeilinga's subsequent penalty attempt after the hooter drifted wide of the uprights. They had survived the Sharks' fightback, and the result will ensure they finish this part of their season (nine weeks of non-stop rugby) on a high.
The Sharks must be realistic. They had an outside chance to win this match at the death through the boot of Zeilinga. But they will also regret the kicks Zeilinga missed.
They should also lament their porous defence. They will know that had the Lions been more clinical in that first quarter, the result may have been more one-sided.
Had the Lions opted to kick for goal when they were 23-14 up, then the final 10 minutes may have panned out differently with the hosts winning by a more convincing margin. The Lions were far from brilliant on Saturday, but they were deserving of victory.
Lions – Tries: Howard Mnisi, Faf de Klerk, Harold Vorster. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalties: Jantjies (2).
Sharks – Tries: Renaldo Bothma, Lwazi Mvovo, Thomas du Toit. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga (3).
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Mark Richards, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 Lohan Jacobs, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Sharks – 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Subs: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Etienne Oosthuizen, 20 Giant Mtyanda, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 Jack Wilson.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images