DURBAN – On the evidence of Saturday’s 33-24 taming of the brave Lions, it would appear the Sharks are timing their Currie Cup run to perfection.
They had to add steely character in the second half to their complete domination of the first half in this most dramatic of Currie Cup semi-finals at Kings Park.
The Lions were so outgunned up front, and so far behind on the scoreboard 10 minutes into the second half that they had no right to be just two points adrift of the Sharks with 10 minutes to go.
But their classy backline made the absolute most of the rare opportunities that came their way.
A blitz of tries from the exceptional Courtnall Skosan set up the most exciting finale to a match this year’s Currie Cup has seen.
Having seen a 23-3 lead transform to a slender 26-24 advantage the Sharks had to dig deep to make the game safe, and they had the class and the courage to do just that.
It was a Sharks performance that will encourage them going into next Saturday’s final.
The iffy performances we have witnessed from them for much of the competition have in the last fortnight given way to more assured displays and on Saturday, it came together nicely in frosty, blustery conditions.
But before KwaZulu-Natalians get to cocky ahead of the final, it should be pointed out that this is an emasculated Lions team compared to their Super Rugby incarnation, particularly in the forwards.
Little wonder the Lions management fought so hard (but unsuccessfully) to get the services of superstar forwards Malcolm Marx and Franco Mostert for this match, and then they were further hurt by the late withdrawal of influential tighthead Jacobie Adriaanse.
From the outset, the Sharks indeed had a clear forward superiority, spearheaded by the excellent front row of Springboks Thomas du Toit, Akker van der Merwe and Juan Schoeman, the former Bulls man who is rapidly maturing into a very handy loosehead.
Of course, the Sharks had two more Bok front-rankers to bring on in the second half in Coenie Oosthuizen and Chiliboy Ralepelle, so the pressure upfront was unrelenting.
The Sharks’ superior physicality also extended to their muscular defence, with some big hits going in on the Lions, with Jeremy Ward in particular putting in some memorable efforts.
It took the Sharks just three minutes to score their first points, with Dan du Preez crashing over from close quarters following a strong set scrum.
His brother Robert knocked over penalties with regularity, and Sbu Nkosi added the second try to give the Sharks an imposing 18-3 lead at halftime.
And when Nkosi scored his second from the kickoff, the rout appeared to be on.
But an opportunistic try by Lions captain Nic Groom followed by Skosan’s brace emphatically halted the Sharks’ impetus.
Skosaan’s first try was the culmination of a spectacular passage of play that first saw Aphiwe Dyantyi intercept a Sharks attack near his tryline.
But he was hauled in from behind 50 metres later by the electric Sharks wing Aphelele Fassi, who then gathered the ball and launched an attack of his own, only to fling a pass to the grateful Skosan.
Du Preez nudged the Sharks into safer waters with a penalty, but then in the 70th minute the Lions delivered their best period of play of the game to free up Skosan for a canter home for his second.
The conversion made it a two-point game, but the jitters in the stands were allayed when big Dan du Preez took matters into his own hands and off a set scrum bulldozed through three tackles to score.
Sharks 33 – Tries: Dan du Preez (2), Sbu Nkosi (2). Conversions: Robert du Preez (2). Penalties: Robert du Preez (3)
Lions 24 – Tries: Nic Groom, Courtnall Skosan (2). Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3). Penalty: Jantjies (1).