Sharks rally to break the drought
Gavin Rich
June 30, 2018
The long period of dominance enjoyed by the Emirates Lions over fellow South African teams in Vodacom Super Rugby was ended in bizarre fashion at Kings Park on Saturday as the Cell C Sharks clinched a 31-24 victory that looked highly unlikely for most of the match.

The Lions have made a penchant in recent seasons of winning games they should perhaps have lost. That, say some, is the hallmark of champion teams. An example was the quarterfinal at Emirates Airlines Park last July, when the hosts had to rely on a late penalty from Ruan Combrinck to win on a day when the Sharks were the better team.

Well, that trend was completely turned on it’s head here, and largely because the Lions conspired against themselves and gave the Sharks a sniff when they should really have been shut out of the game.

For the first hour it looked as if the return of skipper Warren Whiteley and talisman Malcom Marx, plus Combrinck on the wing and Courtnall Skosan off the bench, was going to have the desired effect. They just didn't kick their goals and as a result they didn't capitalise on their dominance. It was almost as if they gifted the Sharks this one.

Although the Sharks were the first on the board after a strong start saw them muscle a try to No 8 Dan du Preez after just three minutes, it was the Lions pack that did all the roaring in the first half and more much of the second. Their scrum dominated the Sharks unit to the extent that it was hard to fathom that the entire home front three was made of Springboks.

It was an awesome scrum that destroyed the Sharks eight that set up the momentum for the first Lions score, that was created all too easily off the overlap for Combrinck to go over in the right corner. Elton Jantjies, looking so much more assured behind an advancing pack than he was behind the struggling Springbok eight at Newlands the week before, added the conversion from touch.

Although Robert du Preez regained the lead for the Sharks with a penalty, it was all the Lions for the rest of the half, with Cyle Brink charging in for the second try to put his team 14-8 ahead and with their forwards overwhelming their opponents, it seemed only a matter of time before the dam wall would break.

Full credit to the Sharks for the way they defended, but the Lions will also feel that they laboured too much and thus wasted that strong forward platform. Although they did score a great try, their third, just before halftime, with Marx barrelling upfield and creating the modicum of space for the pacy Kwagga Smith to race in down the left touchline, to put the Lions 21-11 up, the Lions could have been further ahead.

Among the wasted opportunity were decisions to eschew kickable penalties, and it was something that came back to haunt the visitors in the second half. They should have put the Sharks away in the third quarter. They spent almost all of that period camped in the Sharks half, much of it in their 22.

On four occasions they had opportunities to kick for posts, sometimes from right in front, to extend the 10 point lead to 13. Scoreboard pressure might then have sunk the Sharks, who were struggling to get a foothold into the game.

But the longer the match lasted and the Lions failed to score, so the chances of the Sharks coming back into the contest and making a game of it increased. You could almost sense the Sharks gaining confidence, and by the time the third quarter arrived, the pendulum had swung against the Lions in the forward battle, with the Sharks doing what the Lions didn’t do, at least not until it was a bit too late, by kicking the scrum penalty when it came.

That was in the 64th minute to level the scores at 21-all. ?Before that though the Sharks had got the sniff they were looking for when they finally got out of their own half and it ended with Andre Esterhuizen scoring a good try in the left corner. Du Preez emulated his direct opponent by converting from the corner.

Hardly a minute had passed after Du Preez’s equalising penalty before the Lions were presented with a kickable penalty, and this time, for the first time in the game, Jantjies kicked the three points to reclaim the lead at 24-21.

But the Sharks’ tails were now up, they were hungry, and when Lwazi Mvovo intercepted to run half the length of the field to put his team ahead 28-24 with 10 minutes remaining, the prospect of this being the Sharks’ day became more than a distinct possibility. The dream became reality when another Du Preez penalty stretched the lead to seven with six minutes left, and with the Sharks defence holding firm, the Lions’ impressive record against local teams was no more.

It was their first defeat to a South African team since 2015, and bizarrely came on a day when, considering the power of their forward performance, it looked like they were making a telling statement about their Super Rugby title aspirations.

Instead they will have an agonising wait now over the next two weeks to see what their biggest challengers in the conference, the Jaguares, get out of their games against the Stormers and the Bulls. At this precise moment it looks like advantage Jaguares, as they started the weekend just six points adrift of the Lions with a game in hand.


Cell C Sharks 31 - Tries: Dan du Preez, Andre Esterhuizen and Lwazi Mvovo; Conversions: Robert du Preez 2; Penalties: Robert du Preez 2. Emirates Lions 24 - Tries: Ruan Combrinck, Cyle Brink and Kwagga Smith; Conversions: Elton Jantjies 3; Penalty: Elton Jantjies

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