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Ken Borland



Sharks surprise nobody but nearly unhinge the Lions 0

Posted on July 22, 2017 by Ken

 

Not many people, least of all the Lions, will have been surprised by the Sharks bringing an intensely physical, in-your-face approach to their SuperRugby quarterfinal at Ellis Park on Saturday, but it so nearly unhinged the home side, the overwhelming favourites.

In the end, the Lions had to be bailed out by a phenomenal penalty kick by wing Ruan Combrinck, who slotted the ball over in the 78th minute from six metres inside his own half and 10 metres from touch, to make the final score 23-21.

Combrinck did not have much opportunity in the match, thanks to the Sharks’ swarming defence swallowing up practically all the space on the field, but he showed that he is a person who thrives on the big moment.

“It’s just Ruan’s character that he’s always looking for opportunities and the big moments, he’s normally the last one to leave kicking practice, even though we don’t know how many kicks he gets over!” captain Jaco Kriel joked after the nailbiting victory.

“I always look to the touchline to see if the coach is giving any advice, and both JP [Ferreira, defence coach] and Cash [Ivan van Rooyen, conditioning coach] were pointing to the line to set up the lineout, but Ruan already had his tee in his hand, even though he told me he cramped when he missed his previous kick!”

More drama was to follow in the final minute as the Lions received the kickoff and then set up a series of slow-mo pick-and-goes and rucks as they counted down time. The incensed Sharks were screaming at referee Marius van der Westhuizen, who was the epitome of indecision throughout, for holding on, but the Lions refused to concede anything, even though Kriel afterwards admitted that “we nearly lost the ball in that last ruck”.

The Lions roared into Sharks territory from the first kickoff, which lock Stephan Lewies dropped, and showed their aggressive, confident intent as they turned down two penalties at goal to rather set up lineout drives.

The Sharks were also having early problems in the scrum and the Lions’ third penalty came from that set-piece, and this time flyhalf Elton Jantjies went for poles.

The easy kick from just inside the 22 hit the post, however, and it set the tone for an awful kicking display by the incumbent Springbok flyhalf.

Lionel Mapoe was chasing the rebound, though, and for the umpteenth time, lock Etienne Oosthuizen cost his team points as he took the outside centre out off the ball, giving Jantjies an even easier shot at goal which he slotted to give the Lions a 3-0 lead.

The Lions are always intent on playing the game their way, but in the face of such an aggressive defence and the Sharks’ strategy of getting players in-between their backs, perhaps they should have played the situation more than their preconceived tactics.

A case in point came straight after they had opened the scoring as they tried to pass the ball around in their own 22 after the restart, with both Sharks prop Thomas du Toit and outside centre Lukhanyo Am getting intercepts. Am cut inside and then fed flank Jean-Luc du Preez, who freed wing Kobus van Wyk to go racing over in the corner for the first try.

The Sharks were playing the knockout rugby, building their play around the intensity of their pack and defence, and using the boot of flyhalf Curwin Bosch to good effect.

Coach Robert du Preez played in the Currie Cup-winning Northern Transvaal sides of superboot Naas Botha, so it was no surprise to see Bosch using the drop-kick, and he succeeded with one in the 17th-minute, centre Andre Esterhuizen’s powerful run at the flyhalf channel providing front-foot ball and┬áplenty of time for him to stretch the lead to 8-3.

Jantjies then missed a penalty from in front of the poles, after another Sharks scrum infringement, and the sense of unease grew at Ellis Park as the flyhalf then lost the ball in his own half and lock Andries Ferreira knocked on, forcing the Lions to play the ball on the ground and allowing Bosch to kick a penalty (11-3).

Just before halftime, the Lions were on the wrong end of a 50/50 ruck call and another Bosch penalty put the Sharks 14-3 in front at the break, and seemingly in command.

But the Lions came out for the second half playing much more direct rugby, and with a greater focus on hanging on to the ball rather than throwing speculative passes.

Immediately, the pressure shifted on to the Sharks and a couple of offsides calls led to Lewies being yellow-carded in the 46th minute, an important development as the Lions scored two tries, both unconverted, while he was off the field.

The great work of the Lions scrum set up the first try as lock Franco Mostert plunged over the line a couple of phases after the set-piece had the Sharks forwards going backwards; and four minutes later, flank Kriel burst through the weak defence of Bosch to score.

The woeful kicking of Jantjies meant the Lions were still one point behind though (13-14), but just after the hour mark they won a penalty on their own 22 for a high tackle – although it was not the most obvious offence.

Centre Harold Vorster took a quick tap and jinked his way through the disorganised defence, making it well into the Sharks half before he freed Mapoe on his outside for the Springbok to speed over for the try. This time Jantjies converted (20-14).

But the Sharks regained the lead four minutes later.

Ferreira was blatantly offsides at a ruck and the Sharks kicked the penalty to touch to set up the drive, which was collapsed by Mostert. But the Sharks, playing with the advantage, went over the line as scrumhalf Cobus Reinach nipped over from a ruck close to the poles.

But the TMO referral showed that the ill-disciplined Oosthuizen had once again cost his team points, this time by shoving Mapoe to create the gap that Reinach went through.

The Sharks had another chance though, because Mostert was yellow-carded for his earlier offence and the visitors chose a five-metre scrum, where this time they had the edge and eighthman Daniel du Preez scored against the post.

The Bosch conversion made it 21-20 and the lead lasted all the way through until the thrilling final couple of minutes, with Combrinck missing a penalty in the 70th minute.

The Sharks nearly scored in the right corner as Van Wyk, under pressure from Courtnall Skosan, just failed to gather the bouncing ball. The Lions had the throw-in, under severe pressure, five metres from their line, and Akker van der Merwe, having replaced the excellent Malcolm Marx at hooker, threw over the top for Kriel, charging forward on a storming run.

Mapoe gave great support and the Lions were out of their territory and able to win the fateful penalty that gave Combrinck his moment of glory.

 



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