The Lions secured a home Super Rugby quarter-final with a commanding 37-10 win against the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The five log points ensure the Lions will win the Africa 2 conference, as they cannot be overtaken by the Sharks, who are 12 points behind them with two rounds of the conference stage remaining. Johan Ackermann's men also restored their six-point lead over the Stormers (who lead Africa 1) in the South African group.
The Lions came into this match without inspirational captain Warren Whiteley, who is set to miss the rest of the Super Rugby season because of a shoulder injury. But his absence was hardly felt as the Joburg-based franchise produced one of their best performances of the season to blow the Sharks away.
The visitors suffered a setback just before kick-off when André Esterhuizen was forced to withdraw from the side due to an injury he had sustained during training on Thursday. That saw JP Pietersen move from the right wing to outside centre, with Paul Jordaan shifting to 12 and Sibusiso Sithole starting at 14.
Sharks director of rugby Gary Gold must have been cursing the rugby gods when, five minutes into the game, Jordaan limped off the field with a hamstring injury to be replaced by Heimar Williams, who hadn't been in the original match 23.
And Gold would have been even more miserable when his team trailed 27-0 at half-time, having been mauled by the rampant Lions.
Elton Jantjies got the hosts on the board with a penalty goal, before a box kick from Faf de Klerk wasn't collected by his opposite number Michael Claassens. Courtnall Skosan picked up the loose ball, and the Lions went wide from the next ruck, with great hands from Lionel Mapoe and Jaco Kriel putting Ruan Combrinck over in the right-hand corner.
The hosts struck again from another sustained attack that finished with Rohan Janse van Rensburg ripping the ball away from teammate Ruan Ackermann in a maul and going over for a try.
Ackermann was involved in the Lions' third try, collecting Combrinck's kick, which bounced awkwardly away from Lwazi Mvovo, and putting Malcom Marx away in the right-hand corner. Jantjies had missed his first two conversion attempts but nailed this one from the touchline.
The Sharks' best scoring opportunity of the half came in the 35th minute when Mvovo broke away down the left-hand touchline. But the winger's inside pass was poor and you couldn't blame Odwa Ndungane for knocking on.
The Lions then grabbed their fourth try just before the break, with Ackermann reaching over to plant the ball on the line under the sticks.
Jantjies extended the Lions' lead to 30 with his second penalty early in the second half, with Johan Ackermann then turning to his bench.
It took the hosts a while to get going again and they had to wait until the 58th minute for their next try when Jaco Kriel powered past two defenders to score. The Sharks were fortunate not to be reduced to 14 men, as TV replays showed Pietersen had made a dangerous tackle on Skosan in the buildup.
The visitors finally got on the board five minutes later when Mvovo dotted down for a try and followed that up with a five-pointer to Chiliboy Ralepelle, who went over from a lineout driving maul.
But they were unable to get a third try that would have taken the bonus point away from the Lions and left Ellis Park with their playoff hopes hanging by a thread.
Lions – Tries: Ruan Combrinck, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Malcom Marx, Ruan Ackermann, Jaco Kriel. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3). Penalties: Jantjies (2).
Sharks – Tries: Lwazi Mvovo, Chiliboy Ralepelle.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 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 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Sharks – 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 Sibusiso Sithole, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Garth April, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira (c).
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Ruan Botha, 20 Tera Mtembu, 21 Stefan Ungerer, 22 Rhyno Smith, 23 Heimar Williams.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images