JOHANNESBURG – Job done ... and plenty of relief to go with it. That was the sentiment of the Lions leadership group following their Super Rugby opening round win against the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday.
“I’m very pleased and relieved,” said new head coach Swys de Bruin, who took over from Johan Ackermann after last year’s competition.
“It was a high-pressure game and I’m very happy with the result,” was captain Warren Whiteley’s assessment after leading his team to the 26-19 victory.
It was the Lions’ fourth straight win against Robert du Preez’s side, dating back to last year’s Super Rugby competition, when they met on three occasions.
The Sharks were given more than an even chance of toppling the two-time runners-up in the first match of the 2018 competition, mainly because of their out-of-season acquisitions which included flyhalf Rob du Preez and wing Makazole Mapimpi, their good showing in the pre-season warm-up games and because Dick Muir joined the training team.
On the flip- side the Lions lost key players Faf de Klerk and Ruan Ackermann, started their campaign without Jaco Kriel, and had no inspirational coaching head in Ackermann.
But, after 80 pulsating and hugely entertaining minutes at Ellis Park, it was the Lions who made it four in a row against the men from Durban. De Bruin’s team had just a little more fire-power out wide, more oomph at the breakdowns and their defence was as good as their attack.
The Lions have become accustomed to winning, and closing out tight games, and they did that excellently in the face of a strong and determined Sharks attack.
“I suppose with just one internal warm-up game behind us we went in a little underdone, but we asked for the players to show character and they did,” said De Bruin. “Our attack and defence was equally good, but credit must go to the forwards who laid the platform for the win.”
Indeed, the Lions pack showed plenty of mongrel, especially in defence, and more so in the latter stages when the Sharks set up camp in the Lions 22m area, looking to score a converted try to draw the game.
The home side repelled several Sharks drives and replacement loose-forwards Hacjivah Dayimani and Marnus Schoeman both turned over ball at crucial times ... to add to the impressive showing of starting flanks Kwagga Smith and Cyle Brink.
“Those were big moments ... and if you can win those small margin calls you’ve got to be happy,” said De Bruin about his team’s “fight” at the end. “I must admit, it’s sweet to beat the Sharks.”
In a tight game where neither side was every really in control, the Lions bossed the scrums, winning several penalties, with Sharks man Thomas du Toit enduring a torrid time in the No 3 jersey, but it was the visitors who bossed the line-outs; Lions hooker Malcolm Marx missing his jumpers on numerous occasions.
The Lions out-scored the Sharks four tries to three with their tight-five, Smith and Brink shining up front, while out wide two-try hero Lionel Mapoe was pure class, as was debutant wing Aphiwe Dyantyi, who scored a stunner of a try when he combined pace and vision to out-smart the Sharks defence.
“All the young players stood up,” said De Bruin. “And Aphiwe is a guy you must watch.”
Whiteley, who played his first game on South African soil since the second Test against France last June, said he was pleased with the result ... and his personal showing after such a long time out. “It was lekker being back. I love this competition and I love the union.
I’m so proud of the guys; the way we were able to keep the Sharks out at the end. We scraped through, but we got the result and that’s the most important thing.”
The Lions face the Jaguares at 3pm this Saturday.