The Sharks emerged 16-8 victors at Ellis Park on Saturday, against a home side who pushed them all the way, yet ultimately conspired to lose through woeful finishing and indiscipline.
Eugene Eloff’s side certainly seemed hungrier in the pack and the final tally of 14 turnovers won by his men over the course of the match was testament to their superior urgency and technique at the breakdown. Cobus Grobbelaar was again immense and took advantage of a certain laissez-faire on the part of the Sharks forwards when it came to contesting on the ground. The set phases seemed more or less even, although the early loss of Bismarck du Plessis (under controversial circumstances – he was deemed to have exceeded the maximum 15 minutes time for a blood substitution) conspired to reduce the Sharks’ effectiveness at lineout time.
The opening fifteen minutes saw Rory Kockott and Jaco van Schalkwyk trading penalties. Tighthead prop Ross Geldenhuys was shown a yellow card on the quarter of an hour mark for an illegal clean, while the Lions were camped on the Sharks’ goal line. The resulting penatly helped the Sharks escape and they made good use of their one-man advantage over the next ten minutes, scoring a converted try through tighthead prop BJ Botha, as well as another penalty to take the lead out to 13-3. A further Kockott penalty saw the Sharks go into the break with a handy 13-point cushion.
The Lions will feel they had the better of play in the half, everywhere, that is, except on the scoreboard. They topped the possession stakes by 60% and looked far more creative in the backs than the Sharks did, with flyhalf Francois Steyn determined to to destroy whatever attacking impetus the visitors might gain through inappropriate kicking or poor option-taking. What was decisive, as always, was the Sharks’ defence. Relentless, uncompromising and infallible, the team scrambled to ensure that there was always a man on hand to bring down the final recipient. The Lions wingers knocked on a lot of ball, as is their wont, but you can blame a lot of that on the pressure defence applied by the Sharks,
The second half saw a lot of action, but absolutely no scoring, until Lions replacement Franco van der Merwe managed to scamper over in the corner after 78 minutes had elapsed, taking the Lions’ chances of winning the game with them, especially after replacement flyhalf Rudi Vogt missed the conversion. A torrential downpour which began 30 minutes into the match and never quite ceased did much to blunt the attack of both sides, although again it was the Lions who made more of what possession they had and seemed to manufacture more scoring opportunities. Every single one broke down, though, thanks to a final , desperate tackle, or a final pass that didn’t go to hand. Every one bar the final movement to set up van der Merwe, of course, but by then it didn’t matter.
The Sharks had a few promising break-outs themselves, the best of which broke down when replacement hooker Craig Burden (prominent on the run ever since he came on) managed to fluff a pass to a sprinting Albert van den Berg who had the tryline at his mercy, with eventual man of the match Ryan Kankowski in support. A number of other promising moves never really happened at all, mostly due to Steyn’s penchant for trying to do everything on is own, whether taking on the defenders instead of passing, or missing a sitter of a drop attempt from right in front, with a huge overlap to his left. Not a great night for the youngster, although he did do some lovely running in the build-up to Botha’s try.
The final score was 16-8, which flattered the visitors somewhat, although it was again a case of the Sharks winning a match through superior defence when they probably should have lost on the night.
No bonus point, though, which means that, although the Sharks, too, are still unbeaten, the Crusaders are now 3 points ahead having won the same number of games. Time for some deep reflection back in Durban, with a bye this weekend and a match against the fast-improving Reds before departing on the tour from hell.
As for the Lions, well, they’re punching above their weight and doing everything but winning the game at the moment. They have some beautiful runners in their side and in Baywatch Grobbelaar one of the best opensiders in the competition. Surely their luck must change in the near future? Perhaps this weekend’s match against the Reds will be a perfect opportunity to pick up some momentum ahead of their tour.
Sharks (16) – Try by BJ Botha. Conversion and three penalties by Rory Kockott.
Lions (8) – Try by Franco van der Merwe and a penatly by Jaco van Schalkwyk