DURBAN – The Sharks huffed and puffed, but the Lions just had too many aces up their sleeves and did enough to clinch the overall top spot on the Super Rugby log with a 24-10 victory at Kings Park on Saturday.
The Lions needed a victory to finish the league stages at the summit of Super Rugby to secure a home passage through the playoffs, following the Hurricanes’ 31-22 win over the Crusaders in Wellington earlier in the day.
In fact, the result also had a bearing on where the Sharks would play their quarter-final, with a defeat meaning they remain in South Africa, while a victory would’ve resulted in a long journey to New Zealand.
Now they will have a short flight to Johannesburg next week to take on the Lions again in the playoffs, which is the outcome that both teams would’ve wanted.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing at Kings Park on Saturday, as the Sharks forwards took the fight to their more illustrious opponents.
The likes of Springbok flank Jean-Luc du Preez, lock Etienne Oosthuizen and his namesake Coenie Oosthuizen imposed their physicality on proceedings and drove the Lions back in the tackle.
It didn’t amount to much on the scoreboard initially, though, with just a Garth April penalty to show for it in the opening quarter.
The Lions finally awoke from their slumber in the 21st minute, when hooker Malcolm Marx barrelled over from a maul off a five-metre lineout.
But in windy conditions, Elton Jantjies missed the conversion, and despite the Springbok flyhalf adding a penalty just before halftime, the Sharks hit back.
An ill-judged short 22-metre drop-out by Jantjies was well anticipated by Sharks wing Kobus van Wyk, who caught it ahead of a bunch of Lions players and raced away to level the scores at 8-8.
The Lions, almost as if to prove a point, flexed their muscles to show their superiority as they held on to the ball through a number of phases. There were some superb offloads in the tackle by the likes of Man-of-the-Match Kwagga Smith and Lionel Mapoe, with quick hands seeing Andries Coetzee going over in the corner.
At 13-10 ahead at halftime, the Lions had the momentum going into the second half, and they never relinquished their grip on the game after that.
Jantjies found his range with the boot to slot two penalties to stretch the advantage to 19-10, and with the Sharks wanting to stay in South Africa for their playoff anyway, there was little doubt of what the final result would be.
But just to underline the fact that they were the best team in the round-robin stages, the Lions finished things off in style when scrumhalf Ross Cronjé broke up the middle, and the ball was moved wide for Kriel to walk over on the right-hand side.
Now that the preliminaries are out of the way, it’s all about chasing the trophy for the Lions after they lost in last year’s final.
Sharks 10 – Try: Kobus van Wyk. Conversion: Garth April (1). Penalty: April (1).
Lions 27 – Tries: Malcolm Marx, Andries Coetzee, Jaco Kriel. Penalties: Elton Jantjies (4).
Super Rugby Playoffs (home teams first)
Newlands: Stormers v Chiefs (5pm)
African News Agency (ANA)