Late surge takes Lions to the top
Two tries in the space of a few minutes of each other turned the game on its head and clinched the Lions a hard fought 28-22 victory over the Sharks that puts them on the top of the ABSA Currie Cup log with three matches to play.
The Lions have enjoyed a stranglehold over the Sharks at Coca-Cola Park in the past two seasons, but for much of the game it looked set to be broken, with the Sharks being full value for their 16-6 lead at halftime. Up to that point the Sharks had been the dominant team, enjoying 58% of the possession as well as a similar advantage in the territory battle.
The Lions had defended well, and had kept the Sharks at bay to keep it at 6-all to just beyond the half hour mark. That was when the brilliant Keegan Daniel cut through the middle of the Lions defence from a move that had been started deep in his own half by the equally impressive fullback Louis Ludik before putting Odwa Ndungane in on the right.
Meyer Bosman missed the conversion but the Sharks made up for it by scoring what should have been a try of huge psychological significance after the hooter. Lions fans might argue with some justification that perhaps the scrum went through the 90 degrees, but no matter, you couldn’t fault the brilliance of young scrumhalf Cobus Reinach as he used his pace to go through and score untouched.
The ascendancy that the Sharks had enjoyed in most aspects of the game in the first half changed around though after halftime, with the hard-working Lions scrum laying the foundation for a strong fightback. Man of the match Elton Jantjies controlled proceedings well from the pivot position, and it was he who kicked two penalties within 10 minutes of the restart to cut the deficit to four points.
Then a few minutes later Lwazi Mvovo was penalised for going off-sides as the Lions made what up until then had been a rare incursion into the Sharks’ 22 from a move that had started in their own half. The Lions looked like they were taking control, and the Jantjies penalty, kicked in the 52nd minute, meant there was just one point in it.
That though was the cue for the Sharks to regain their composure and go back on the offensive, with Daniel making a superb break that transferred all the pressure onto the Lions, and in no time at all two more penalties had allowed the Sharks to reassert their seven-point buffer. A word on Daniel – if Heyneke Meyer knew how to use him properly he would make a superb international player, and this game was another reminder of that.
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Daniel may have played well, as did fullback Louis Ludik, but they weren’t happy chappies in the last quarter as the Lions scored 13 points without reply, five of those points coming through a try that the Sharks hotly disputed and which was referred to the TMO by the referee.
Eventually the try was awarded because there was no evidence that the ball had been knocked forward by replacement flanker Jaco Kriel as he tried to pick it up off the floor at the start of a move that led to wing Ruan Combrinck scoring in the left hand corner. The TMO ruled that there was no evidence that he had knocked it forward, but the Sharks will regard that as a marginal call similar to the one that cost them a match-winning try against Griquas in Kimberley two weeks ago.
Make no mistake though, if it was legal, and the decision made it so, it was a great try, with Andries Coetzee creating it with a deft little chip over the Sharks defence before gathering himself and then drawing the tackler perfectly before putting Combrink away with a well timed pass.
Jantjies had earlier kicked a penalty from in front so the try, scored in the 69th minute, put the Lions into the lead. By failing to kick the angled conversion, Jantjies left it at a one point game with 10 minutes to play, but it soon became six points as in the 72nd minute Kriel – yes, the same Kriel that had been questioned in the earlier try – blitzed through the Sharks defence for an astounding solo try that looked like it had killed the Sharks’ challenge.
At least that would have been the case had Jantjies kicked the relatively easy conversion, but he failed, and it left the Sharks with a sniff. Lions coach Johan Ackermann opted a few minutes later to replace Jantjies with Butch James, and it proved an inspired move, as it was the World Cup-winning 2007 Bok flyhalf who produced the tackle near his line in the final minute that earned the Lions the put-in at the final scrum of the match.
With time up, all the Lions had to do was win the ball and control it, which they did, and James kicked it into the stands to secure an exciting victory that puts his team three points clear of the Sharks at the top of the log.
The Sharks will feel distraught at how they surrendered what looked a winning advantage, but statistics don’t lie, and by the end of the game all the advantages that the Sharks had enjoyed in the first half had been overturned, including the tackle, territory and possession counts. The bottom line was that they just weren’t clinical enough when they needed to be, and the Lions deserved their win even if the Durbanites may be right if they feel a bit aggrieved at some of referee Jason Japhta’s decisions.
Lions 28 (6): Tries: Ruan Combrinck, Jaco Kriel. Penalties: Elton Jantjies (6).
Sharks 22 (6): Tries: Odwa Ndungane, Cobus Reinach. Penalties: Meyer Bosman (4).