The Lions were the winners of a pulsating, high-quality SuperRugby derby against the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday night, edging the visitors 34-29 in a gripping encounter that had all the intensity of some of the famous Test matches the Springboks have played at the venue.
The Lions were obviously not at their best, perhaps rattled by the tremendous physical onslaught brought by the Sharks, and they made numerous handling errors. But the sign of a champion side is their ability to win the games when things aren’t going their way, and they did that through a 77th-minute Jaco Kriel try.
The Sharks were superb – none more so than Curwin Bosch, the precocious flyhalf who later shifted to fullback, and produced one of the most incredible kicks seen at the famous stadium when he slotted an angled penalty from 65 metres that put the KwaZulu-Natalians 29-26 ahead in the 71st minute.
The Sharks were undone largely by a string of penalties against them by referee Jaco van Heerden, particularly for high tackles, an offence that saw Etienne Oosthuizen yellow-carded just before halftime. The lock, a perennial liability when it comes to discipline, had earlier caused a try to be disallowed by targeting the neck, and when he was carded, the Lions immediately scored so his indiscretions cost the Sharks at least 12 points.
The visitors will not be happy though with the performance of the TMO Johan Greeff, who was happy to point out every time the Sharks went above the shoulder, but turned the blindest of eyes to clear instances when the Lions committed the same offence.
The Sharks have history with Greeff and coach Robert du Preez made his displeasure over the inconsistencies clear after the game.
That the Sharks were intent on upping the intensity of the contest, especially in terms of physicality, was clear from the start and the Lions conceded a first-minute penalty at the ruck, which Bosch slotted (3-0).
In the eighth minute they fired a real warning shot at the Lions by scoring the opening try. Outside centre Lukhanyo Am managed to make ground through Rohan Janse van Rensburg as the newest Springbok centre was unsuccessful in stripping him of the ball. Kobus van Wyk, coming from the opposite wing, was then barking for the ball as he ran a great line, scrumhalf Cobus Reinach delivering, and prop Coenie Oosthuizen then stormed for the tryline, having just enough in the legs to dot down in Warren Whiteley’s tackle.
Bosch converted and the Sharks were 10-0 up.
But the set-piece lays much of the platform for the Lions’ success and the home side began to exert pressure on the Sharks, especially at the lineout. A scrappy 14th-minute effort saw Lions lock Andries Ferreira pounce on the tap-down, leading to a penalty and Elton Jantjies was able to give last year’s SuperRugby runners-up their first points (3-10).
Bosch, meanwhile, was grouping together 50-60 metre touchfinders and he showed tremendous accuracy to go with length off the tee as well as he nailed a 57m penalty to stretch the lead to 13-3 in the 19th minute.
A 25th-minute penalty then rebounded off the post, with the Sharks regathering possession and scoring in the corner. But Van Heerden and Greeff had a whole bunch of questions about the try and eventually it was disallowed and the Lions given a penalty under their poles for Etienne Oosthuizen’s high tackle in the build-up.
It only further opened up the can of worms when an innocuous high tackle was again penalised and Jantjies kicked a penalty to close the gap to 6-13.
Bosch opened up a 10-point lead again with a superb 34th-minute drop goal as the Sharks were making little headway against a Lions team that had stepped up their intensity, and when Oosthuizen was yellow-carded for the same offence just before halftime it was an enormous moment.
The penalty allowed the Lions to set up an attacking position close to the tryline, hooker Malcolm Marx proving an unstoppable force after the lineout drive.
Jantjies converted and the Lions were just 13-16 down after a first half in which they had been bossed for long periods, setting the scene for an epic second half.
And it took the Lions just four minutes after the break to take the lead, an incisive finish by wing Courtnall Skosan completing their second try after scrumhalf Faf de Klerk had broken away on the short side after an impressive scrum.
Jantjies converted (20-16) and then fullback Andries Coetzee emulated Bosch with an excellent long-range drop goal, which came after Skosan, fielding a missed touchfinder from centre Andre Esterhuizen, had run headlong into the huge abs of Coenie Oosthuizen, but managed to survive and recycle the ball.
Bosch had pretty much been a bystander for the previous 20 minutes, but a move to fullback as Innocent Radebe slotted in at flyhalf and Michael Claassens came on at scrumhalf, saw the Sharks regain the initiative.
The top-class distribution skills of Claassens and Radebe certainly seemed to help them, and a long pass out wide to Van Wyk from Radebe, after he had taken the ball to the line, led to a much-needed try for the Sharks in the 55th minute.
Bosch converted to level the scores at 23-23 and then kicked a penalty.
The Lions’ championship credentials were certainly being refined by fire and they managed to draw level again in the 67th minute through a Jantjies penalty after Van Heerden penalised the Sharks at a scrum although they were dominant.
But Bosch replied with his incredible 65m angled penalty after a Lions infringement, but it would only be enough for the silver medal on the day.
Another high tackle call against the Sharks allowed Jantjies to level the scores again and then, with three minutes remaining, the counter-attacking skills of Coetzee and replacement flank Kwagga Smith were like gold for the Lions.
Bosch could not kick directly into touch because the ball had been carried back into the 22 and Coetzee ran the ball back, before a great run by Smith, and then flanker Kriel came roaring through for the matchwinning try.
Jantjies did not convert, but the Sharks were unable to hang on to the ball in the closing stages of the match in Lions territory, and the home side had survived to post an invaluable victory.
Lions – Tries: Malcolm Marx, Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (4). Drop goal: Andries Coetzee.
Sharks – Tries: Coenie Oosthuizen, Kobus van Wyk. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (2). Penalties: Bosch (4). Drop goal: Bosch.