Sitting at 21-11 down at halftime, the Sharks were in the game on paper, but the pressure the visitors were exerting on the Durban-based side saw them very much looking like bystanders.
The Sharks had very little of the ball in the first half, and much of the second half, with the Lions having it all their own way. The Johannesburg team were dominant in the scrums, in the tight stuff with their forwards, as well as in the backs.
However, the Lions would have known that for all their pressure, they were not taking enough of the opportunities offered to them. The Sharks took on a defensive mantle for about 80 percent of the game, but they did their defending exceptionally.
Soon, the pressure from the Lions started to abate as they could not keep going on attack with such ferocity. The Sharks saw their chance and started clawing their way back.
Good penalty kicks from Robert du Preez, an intercept try from Lwazi Mvovo, and the Lions were suddenly shell shocked with 10 minutes to go in the game. The win keeps the Sharks alive in the competition with two games remaining before a potential quarter-final. It also breaks a long standing record by the Lions who had not lost to a South African team since 2015.
The Sharks meant business early on in the important clash as they set a tough and abrasive tone for the game. Pressuring the Lions line early on, the home side set up a line-out after a penalty, steadied a well set maul and got their second shove on to see Dan du Preez over with only a few minutes gone.
But if the Sharks were set on using their powerful forwards, the Lions were happy to spread the ball wide as they hit back with a try from Ruan Combrinck. Elton Jantjies nailed the conversion to give the visitors the lead.
The lead, and the confidence it offers, was clearly key to the Sharks as they snapped up a chance to sneak back in front with a Robert du Preez penalty. The Lions continued to play with the freedom that sitting atop the table offers with a good break from Lionel Mapoe on one wing ending in a try for Cyle Brink on the other. The big forward bashed off Makazole Mapimpi and Cameron Wright along the way.
The Sharks had managed to keep the Lions away from their tryline with a lot of scrambling and desperate defending as the half wore on, and the pressure that the Lions held over the Sharks started to ease.
A few mistakes and some contestable kicks got the Sharks in their opposition’s half, and they were able to make it count with another Du Preez penalty to make it 14-11 to the Lions.
The Lions were not done though, scoring a try at the death of the half off a good line-out move. Kwagga Smith ran it in and Jantjies kicked the extras leaving the Sharks behind by 10.
The second half did not have the same start as the first with the teams much more focused on playing a chess match with territory. Still, the Lions managed to rebuild the pressure and take the ascendancy again.
However, against the run of play, and off a scrum, the Sharks sparked into life as Andre Esterhuizen snuck into the left hand corner for the first points of the half to cut the deficit down to three points with 20 minutes to go.
The scrums were, towards the end, turned into weapons for the Sharks as a penalty was won by the forwards. Their flyhalf kicked it over and levelled the scores, 21-all with a quarter of an hour to go.
It mattered little because off the kick-off, Elton Jantjies kicked them back into the lead from a poor penalty at the breakdown.
The tension grew as the Lions made one of their first glaring mistakes with Harold Vorster looping a ball into the hands of Mvovo who showed he has not lost his pace to grab a try, and the lead; 28-24 with 10 minutes to go.
Attempting to secure the lead, a penalty offered was gleefully snapped up by the Sharks with Du Preez making it a seven-point game. And that is how it would end, the Sharks ending a seven-game losing streak against the Lions.