One would have thought the sodden conditions at King’s Park would have put a damper on the Cell C Sharks’ ambitions but they pulled off a superb bonus-point 29-12 win over the Emirates Lions in their Vodacom SuperRugby match in Durban on Saturday night.
There was a torrential downpour about an hour before kickoff and the rain was falling steadily until the second half, so ball-in-hand, positive rugby was never on the cards, but a magnificent forward display by the Sharks and the brilliant generalship of Pat Lambie at flyhalf allowed the Sharks to score four tries.
The foundation for their success was laid in the scrums.
The Lions’ scrum was one of the best in the competition last year, but the first-choice front row of Van der Merwe, Coetzee and Redelinghuys was strangely on the bench, and the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, with the able assistance of Dale Chadwick at loosehead, won all the early battles in that set-piece and the Sharks’ first points as well as their second try both came from huge shoves by the pack.
The Lions were on the board first through a Marnitz Boshoff penalty in the third minute, but five minutes later, a stupendous scrum by the Sharks allowed Lambie to slot an angled penalty from between the 10m and halfway lines, a great effort considering the flooded field beneath his feet.
The Sharks’ rolling maul also had the Lions’ defence in disarray and it earned a penalty for the home side in the 21st minute, which Lambie pushed wide of the poles.
But the flyhalf’s liberal use of the crosskick also had the Lions scrambling and the first try came when Lambie’s kick to the left was won back by Lwazi Mvovo and the Springbok incumbent then spotted acres of space on the left and put in a pinpoint kick into the safe hands of Odwa Ndungane, who used the slippery surface to slide over the line.
The Sharks, in control up front and with a flyhalf who had clearly changed his game plan to suit the conditions, were obviously the best team in the first half and they made that dominance count with a second try in the 30th minute.
Strong forward drives by flank Renaldo Bothma and debutant lock Lubabalo ‘Giant’ Mtyanda earned the Sharks a five-metre scrum. A massive shove made a try inevitable, but scrumhalf Cobus Reinach almost butchered the opportunity by not passing, before eventually reaching out at full-stretch to just dot the ball down on the line.
Boshoff kicked a second penalty for the Lions three minutes later, but the Sharks were so dominant that it didn’t seem to matter as they went into halftime 15-6 up.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann changed his entire front row early in the second half, and there was a noticeable improvement in the visitors’ performance, so one has to ask why they were on the bench in the first place, especially props Schalk van der Merwe and Julian Redelinghuys.
And so the Lions dominated the third quarter, allowing Boshoff to kick two more penalties and close the gap to 12-15.
But the Sharks, with Matt Stevens doing well at tighthead when he replaced the excellent Jannie du Plessis, regained the early dominance they had enjoyed at scrum-time and Ndungane, once again sharp when it came to contesting the ball in the air, forced the Lions to concede a lineout inside their 22 after another precise Lambie cross-kick.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, the best lineout jumper on the night, claimed the ball and the Sharks’ rolling maul bulldozed forward, flank Marcell Coetzee scoring the try.
Lambie’s conversion made it 22-12 and, with Lions captain and breakaway eighthman Warren Whiteley sent off the field for slapping the ball out of the hands of the halfback at a ruck, the Sharks rumbled over for another rolling-maul try by Coetzee to seal a convincing win.
The try was converted by Lambie, who had done so much in ensuring the dominance of the forwards was reflected on the scoreboard. He was ably assisted by halfback partner Reinach, and the Lions pairing of Boshoff and Ross Cronje, both Springbok hopefuls, were thoroughly outplayed by Lambie and Reinach.
The superb displays of the Du Plessis brothers, Du Toit, Reinach and Lambie will surely not go unnoticed by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer with the World Cup in the northern hemisphere later this year.
Sharks – Tries: Odwa Ndungane, Cobus Reinach, Marcell Coetzee (2). Conversions: Pat Lambie (3). Penalty: Lambie.
Lions – Penalties: Marnitz Boshoff (4).