The Lions played with superb fluency and confidence, pace and power, to ensure the Sharks would come badly undone on their visit to Johannesburg, the hosts winning their SuperRugby match 37-10 at Ellis Park on Saturday.
After weathering an impressive first five minutes from the Sharks, the Lions were quick to communicate their intention to pick up where they left off before the June international break, their previous result being a similarly superb 56-20 demolition of the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
The Sharks’ bright start withered in the face of some ferocious defending from the Lions and they simply pushed the visitors ever further from the advantage line, bossing the collisions and producing the quick ball that they flourished on, displaying wonderful skills and intensity in the process.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies put the first points on the board with a seventh-minute penalty and the woes began for the Sharks as Paul Jordaan limped off with a knee injury. They had already been forced to make a midfield change when Andre Esterhuizen failed to recover in time from the hamstring strain he picked up during the week, which meant Jordaan was playing inside centre and JP Pietersen shifted to number 13 and S’bura Sithole came on to the wing.
Heimar Williams then came on to replace Jordaan and, with Garth April appearing flustered at flyhalf, the Sharks had a severely disrupted backline, the Esterhuizen/Jordaan combination being one of their strong points this season.
But what was unforgivable was the number of basic mistakes the Sharks made in the first half, starting with scrumhalf Michael Claassens basically bailing out of taking an up-and-under, giving the Lions prime attacking position. Lionel Mapoe produced an incisive run, Jaco Kriel, as ever, was up in support and made the final pass for wing Ruan Combrinck to score the opening try in the 15th minute.
The Sharks were also poor at relieving pressure in their own territory, allowing the Lions to mount relentless attacks because their kicks were often up-and-unders instead of touchfinders, and too often they did not find touch or grass.
The second try came after an up-and-under from the base rather than a lengthy kick to clear the lines, followed by Odwa Ndungane dithering and not claiming a mark that could also have relieved the pressure. Instead the Lions piled on to attack, lock Franco Mostert powered through close to the line and eventually centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg grabbed the ball out of a maul and swiveled over the line.
On the half-hour, the jittery April kicked straight to fullback Andries Coetzee, who launched the attack and Combrinck’s little chip behind the defensive line bounced wickedly for Lwazi Mvovo, again in the north-east corner of Ellis Park, with eighthman Ruan Ackermann gathering and passing to hooker Malcolm Marx to storm over for the third try.
The Sharks were 20-0 down and then butchered the best chance they had to get on the scoreboard when Mvovo’s pace took him clear, but his pass inside to Ndungane was a bit behind the fullback and the veteran dropped the ball with the line clear ahead of him.
While the dazzling attacking play of the Lions backline gets most of the plaudits, their pack is also brilliant and they deserve the credit for the fourth try, scored on the stroke of halftime, as the forwards went on the charge, battering through the advantage line until Ackermann, one of the stars of the show as he stood in for the injured Warren Whiteley, powered over the line with two of his colleagues behind him.
Jantjies’ conversion meant the Lions would go into the break with a commanding 27-0 lead and the problems that bedevilled the Sharks did not go away in the third quarter either.
April produced an awful kick from his own 22 that did not go anywhere but straight up, leading to a penalty slotted by Jantjies, and the ball-hungry Kriel then crashed over the line in a move that again highlighted the pace and power of the Lions forwards.
At 37-0 down with 22 minutes to play, the Sharks were really just chasing pride and their replacements, especially lock Ruan Botha, added some much-needed energy.
The visitors were finally on the board in the 63rd minute, Sithole cutting through the Lions defences and some clean hands by April and replacement fullback Rhyno Smith delivered the ball to Mvovo, who stepped inside and dotted down.
Six minutes later, Botha, who announced his return from long-term injury with a compelling performance in the Ellis Park fortress, soared high to take a lineout and set up the rolling maul, from which another Sharks import, replacement hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle, scored.
That made it five tries to two and, if the Sharks had managed to score once more in the last 11 minutes it would have robbed the Lions of a well-deserved bonus point, but Johannesburg’s pride held out to ensure they will top their conference and host the city’s first SuperRugby knockout game since 2001.