Super Rugby / 17 February 2018, 7:40pm / Jacques van der Westhuyzen at Ellis Park
JOHANNESBURG – In an enthralling and thoroughly entertaining match, the Lions continued where they left off last year by edging the Sharks 26-19 in their Super Rugby opener here on Saturday night.
The Lions continued their dominance over South African opposition with a thrilling and high-octane performance, where new heroes were born, as they made it four out of four against the men from Durban since the beginning of last year.
For a first game of the new season, the skills and quality of rugby on display was top-notch, and new national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus would have loved most of what he saw.
There was powerful scrumming from both teams, but especially the Lions, who dominated the scrums and proved to the Sharks bosses that Thomas du Toit still has some way to go before he can be considered a tighthead prop.
The home team, with Jacques van Rooyen leading the way, completely smashed the visitors in the set-pieces, often getting themselves out of trouble by winning a scrum penalty.
But then it was the Sharks who had the upper-hand at lineout time, with new SA Rugby Player of the Year and Lions hooker Malcolm Marx battling throughout the clash to find his jumpers.
It didn’t help that Andries Ferreira withdrew on the eve of the contest, but still, the Sharks deserve credit for disrupting the Lions’ set-piece.
In all, it was a thrilling, hard contest where the pace of play, offloading, counter-attacking and dazzling stepping ensured the match will go down as another classic between the teams.
There was never more than nine points between the sides, and no one team would have felt over the 80 minutes they were in control of the match.
But the home side edged ahead in the final quarter, varying their game more than their opponents, and having greater fire-power from off the bench.
The Sharks, as good as they were at asking questions, seemed to run out of puff in the latter stages and once they’d started losing the forwards battle – if they ever were on top – they didn’t have much more to offer.
Still, Robert du Preez’s team look a solid enough outfit to believe they will do well this season.
Kwagga Smith was a terrier for the Lions upfront and at the breakdowns, while at the back, Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe combined beautifully in midfield with the latter scoring two wonderful tries.
His battle with Lukhanyo Am provided plenty of thrills, and one can expect them to be the front-runners for the Bok No 13 shirt this year.
Then there was the quite wonderful Aphiwe Dyantyi, the 20-year-old wing of the Lions, who scored a magnificent try, showing pace and vision to chip the ball ahead and gather it to announce his arrival in Super Rugby.
And let’s not forget his wing partner Sylvian Mahuza who bamboozled his opponents with some thrilling stepping, and the Sharks duo of Sbu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi, both of whom crossed for their team.
When one witnesses the talent that was on display on Saturday night, one can only but wonder how the Boks battled so much last year and in 2016.
In the end the Lions won by only seven points and, if truth be told, they were hanging on by a thread in the final stages.
But as great an attacking team as they are, they are also a quite potent defensive outfit, and they put all those qualities on display at the end night to keep the visitors out.
But had Elton Jantjies slotted two late penalties the margin would have been far greater – and there would have been no edge-of-the-seat finish.
The best news for Lions fans though is the team look as well-oiled as they did the same time a year ago... meaning there is hope after Johan Ackermann.
But Sharks fans will also have been pleased with what they saw of their team; they’ll going to be a huge factor this season.