Durban - The Sharks held on for a dramatic 47-37 win at Emirates Airline Park in an 11-try thriller in which the Lions gave as good as they got from their Springbok-laden opponents.
The two teams had both won their matches in the previous round of the United Rugby Championship but the Sharks were the favourites now that the bulk of their Boks are back and indeed Springbok flyer Makazole Mapimpi with a hat-trick, and Lukhanyo Am with the last-minute try to clinch the game, made telling impacts.
The Lions had made the early running in the game before the Sharks charged back and at one point had a 15-point cushion but with only a few minutes left on the clock, the Lions were just three points adrift at 40-37 before Am closed the game out as time ran out.
Just as they did in their fine win over the Stormers on December 4, the Lions’ finishing was ruthlessly efficient in the first quarter. In a five-minute period from about ten minutes into the game, they had two half-chances to score and took both of them.
The first came when a Boeta Chamberlain pass bounced off the shoulder of Makazole Mapimpi and into the hands of Fred Zeilinga, who set up his halfback partner Andre Warner for a run to the line.
And two minutes later, Wandisile Simelane followed up a chip down the touchline by Rabz Maxwane, gathered and scored.
The Sharks struck back superbly with a double-strike of their own. When Grant Williams had forced a knock-on from his opposite number at the back of a Lions scrum, the Sharks forwards surged to the line via a series of neat inter-passes that created the momentum for Aphelele Fassi to burst through the midfield for a score.
Not long after the restart, the Lions lost a lineout and from the unexpected possession, Am stabbed a raking grubber downfield for Mapimpi to retrieve, and score.
The Sharks led 15-12 after a blistering opening quarter that boasted four tries.
The Lions drew level at 15-15 when Zeilinga nailed a penalty in the 25th minute and three minutes later he added another for the lead.
The Sharks then had a penalty in front but chose the corner kick instead., and were handsomely rewarded for their decision when their maul propelled Kerron van Vuuren over.
Three minutes before halftime, it was again magical offloading by the Sharks that put Mapimpi on the end of an overlap and he cruised home for his second try and a 27-18 half-time lead.
That lead became 12 points when Chamberlain kicked a penalty three minutes into the new half only for the Lions to retaliate when a quick tap penalty taken in the Sharks’ 22 saw lock Ruben Schoeman barrel over.
They undid that good work when from the restart they made a hash of a clearance and the loose ball was a freebie for Mapimpi to clinch his hat-trick.
The Lions’ disintegration continued soon after when they gave away a clumsy penalty for Chamberlain to push his team into a 40-25 lead.
Some of the damage was undone when nippy winger Edwill van der Merwe finished acrobatically at the corner flag and when replacement scrumhalf Morne van den Berg darted over, a dramatic finale was ensured at 40-37 with ten minutes to go, and it was only in the final minute that Am snatched the match-winner.
Lions - Tries: Andre Warner, Wandisile Simelane, Ruben Schoeman, Edwill van der Merwe, Morne van den Berg. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga (2), Tiaan Swanepoel. Penalties: Zeilinga (2).
Sharks - Tries: Aphelele Fassi, Makazole Mapimpi (3). Kerron van Vuuren, Morne van den Berg. Penalties: Boeta Chamberain (3). Conversions: Chamberlain (3), Tito Bonilla.