DURBAN – One wonders if there has ever been a game quite like this one in Durban where a home team so comprehensively outplayed had a reason to mildly celebrate.
The “reward” for the Sharks being given a sound 27-10 beating by the Lions last night is that they get to play the same team at Ellis Park next week in the Super Rugby quarter-finals, now that the Lions have finished first on the overall log – thanks to the Hurricanes beating the previously unbeaten Crusaders earlier in the day, and the Sharks finishing eighth.
But on the evidence of what we saw last night, the Sharks have merely saved themselves some long-distance travel to Christchurch for a hiding on Saturday in Johannesburg rather than getting thrashed on the other side of the world.
On this evidence, all the Sharks can realistically take out of this game is that they have had a stay of execution. They were outplayed in every facet of the game.
There would have been Cantabrians staying up all night on the South Island hoping for a miracle at Kings Park, but by halftime, they would have gone to bed knowing that the Lions would top the table and that from here on in, the Lions will only play in Johannesburg.
Their reward for thumping the Sharks is a home quarter-final, possible home semi-final and possible home final.
The bottom line for the Sharks is that they never remotely threatened the Lions.
Sharks coach Robert du Preez said after the game that he was gutted that his team had not made more of a fist of the game.
“The effort was just not there. I am very disappointed that the guys just did not pitch up and take the game to the Lions, and that after we trained so hard for this game,” Du Preez said.
“All we did was defend. That was not how we prepared for this game. We wanted to attack them, but we never got out of the starting blocks.”
After the Hurricanes beat the Crusaders yesterday morning, the Sharks were presented with the following conundrum: lose to the Lions and then have a winnable quarter-final at Ellis Park this week, or win and have the “reward” of travelling to Christchurch.
The truth is that permutations would not have come into it for the Sharks. Not for a nano-second. Rugby is not like cricket (where cheating is possible), and it is impossible to deliver anything but your best in this great team sport.
In any case, if the Sharks had genuine aspirations of winning the title, they would have had to beat the best over the next three weekends.
Instead, the home team camped in their own half throughout the game and only commitment on defence prevented the score from getting ugly. The Sharks were shocking. It is as simple as that. They scrummed well in the first half, and that was about it.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann said that he was disappointed in his team’s performance, and that just emphasises how poor the Sharks were.
“We will not win Super Rugby playing like that,” the ever honest Ackermann said.
It was the Sharks that scored first, Garth April nailing a long-range penalty. The Lions replied with a try off the back of a lineout maul, hooker Malcolm Marx going over.
Five minutes before halftime, Jantjies broke through the defence to set up the pressure on the Sharks defence that incurred a penalty for him to kick over.
The first time the Sharks ventured into the Lions 22, they scored, when Jantjies fluffed a 22m drop out for Van Wyk to snap up and score.
The Sharks were still celebrating when the Lions counter-attacked from the kickoff, and a series of phases saw Lionel Mapoe break through and then offload to Andries Coetzee for a try at the corner flag. The conversion was missed to give the visitors a slender 13-10 lead.
The Lions also scored the first points of the second half, a penalty by Jantjies that had its origins in the Lions winning a scrum penalty and scrumhalf Ross Cronjé taking a quick tap that led to the Sharks infringing in defence.
Another Lions scrum penalty saw Jantjes push the score out to 19-10.
The Sharks needed to score next to get into the game, but it was the Lions that scored when Cronjé broke clean through the defence on the halfway line to ultimately set up an easy dot-down for Jaco Kriel.