The writing was on the wall for this encounter when the hooter sounded for half-time with the Sharks having taken a comfortable 31 – 0 lead over the Lions. Any lingering doubts were erased by Jake White emptying his entire 11-man bench for the second half. The reinforcements, consisting of mainly under-studies, had their own point to prove however and would go on to score a further 26 points in the second half while conceding 14 to the Lions.
Both coaches will be left scratching their heads after the match. Jake White now faces the uncertainty of how much should be read into the result while Johan Ackerman is probably wondering what he was thinking sending so many fringe players into the warm-up match only to emerge with bruised bodies, dented egos and little else to show for it.
The Sharks struck early with breaks from both Lambie and Lwazi eventually creating enough space for Odwa Ndungane to dot down in the corner. Lambie, never looking comfortable kicking from the acute angles, failed to convert and the Sharks lead 5 – 0 within the first two minutes of the match.
Play was briefly interrupted when referee, Jason Jaftha, was stretchered off the field after what looked like a knock during broken play in the Lions half. The Lions were soon thereafter given the opportunity to put their own points on the board with the Sharks being penalised during scrum time in their own half. Flyhalf Willie du Plessis pushed the kick to the right and the Lions remained scoreless. This would prove to be their last decent scoring opportunity of the first half.
The Sharks would go on to use both set-pieces to great effect after their early scrum penalty and losing their second line-out within the Lions red zone. Not afraid to counter-attack from inside their own 22 when the space was available, the Sharks would often run themselves into favourable field positions and then apply the necessary pressure to force a penalty or handling error against the Lions. On countless occasions the Lions would concede penalties or possession inside their own half. Lambie’s boot would come into play at this point and consistently find touch deep in Lions territory. The Sharks’ line-out would be then used to create the required attacking momentum from which to score.
As the minutes ticked on the Sharks grew more comfortable and confident employing this tactic. In the 15th minute of the game the Sharks would once again secure good, clean ball from their lineout and shift play to the middle of the field before SP Marais ran a good attacking line quickly moving play back to right side of the field and putting in a neat little grubber through the first line of defence. Jordaan was on the ball in an instant, nudging it further with his boot and putting it outside the reach of cover defence before Odwa collected and ran in his second try a little closer to the posts this time. Lambie easily converted to put the Sharks 12 – 0 ahead.
The Lions reset with a kick-off and enjoyed a rare attacking opportunity in the Sharks 22 but were forced into making a mistake through relentless defence from the forwards. The Sharks scrum was solid allowing a good clearance and ultimately gifted the Sharks the opportunity to once again do most of their playing in the Lions half. The Sharks were soon camping on the Lions 10 with a line-out feed. The backline worked the ball across the entire length of the field before shifting it back to the middle, all the while gaining valuable ground. Pieter Steph du Toit spotted the gap close to the posts and soon out-muscled his defenders, crossing the white wash to score try number three for the Sharks. Lambie converted and the Sharks were now sitting on a handy 19 – 0 lead with a good 15 minutes of the first half still remaining.
The Lions enjoyed the customary foray into the Sharks half after kick-off only for Jannie du Plessis to pilfer the ball and force a scrum penalty. The Sharks cleared the ball from the ensuing scrum but the kick proved too deep allowing the Lions to gain valuable ground with the return. The Sharks proved solid in the resulting line-out and a clever box-kick from Cobus Reinach put the Lions on the back-foot and back under pressure. The Sharks worked their way back up the field through scrums and pick-and-goes from the forwards. The Lions eventually managed to stem the tide on their 10 with a feed into the scrum. The Sharks got the shove however and soon Marcell Coetzee was all over scrumhalf Faf de Klerk resulting in a very poor clearance. The Sharks had won another attacking lineout inside the Lions 22. They soon capitalised with Lambie spotting the overlap on the far side and using the skip pass to find Mvovo. Lwazi was as much the hero of this movement as he had to jump to catch the pass before landing, beating the defender and scoring the fourth try in the corner. Lambie again struggled with the angle and pushed wide but with a 24 – 0 lead and having engineered the try, nobody was complaining.
A passage of stop-start play from the Sharks and Lions ensued with both sides involved in decent but fruitless attacking movements and solid defence, the highlight of which was Jannie picking the ball straight out of the air after a cheeky chip-kick from Willie du Plessis probing for space behind the Sharks rush-defence. The Sharks, once again employing their rewarding line-out play patiently worked their way into the Lions 22 again and were awarded an attacking scrum for their efforts. A quick ball to Frans Steyn provided him with enough momentum to hit the half-gap, push off the cover defense and score the final try of the half on the hooter. Lambie converted and the Sharks sat on 31 – 0 lead going into the break.
The second-half saw the bench cleared with only SP Marais, Tera Mtembu, Odwa Ndungane and Anton Bresler allowed to play on. The Lions were more conservative with their replacements however with fewer changes going into the second half.
The Lions found one of the best attacking opportunities early in the half with a feed into the scrum in the Sharks’ red zone. The Sharks bench warmers had a point of their own to prove however and soon won the penalty after applying huge pressure and forcing the scrum through the ninety. The Sharks once again proved how adept they’ve become at patiently working their way into their opposition’s half and soon boasted another attacking lineout in the Lion’s 22. Once the ball was secured it was swiftly run through the entire backline before finding the hands of Sithole. With both strength and explosive speed at his disposal, he looked the part at outside centre and after bulldozing three defenders he crossed the chalk and put the first points of the second half on the board. Fred Zeilinga comfortably converted a fairly challenging kick. 38 – 0 to the Sharks five minutes into the half.
Ten minutes of improved play would follow from the Lions but silly errors again proved costly, robbing them of momentum when they so desperately needed it. The Sharks competitiveness at the deck and ever-growing presence in the line-outs would further disrupt promising passages of Lions’ play. Sithole’s strong runs would ultimately bring the Sharks back into the Lions half where an attacking lineout would once again be the Lions undoing. Stephan Lewis would go on to score from the ensuing rolling maul and Fred would once again add the extra two for a 45 – 0 lead.
A failed clearance from the Sharks and a penalty conceded at the breakdown following it would finally allow the Lions onto the board. After failing to setup their first rolling maul from an attacking lineout on the Sharks 5, the Lions were allowed a second chance after the Sharks were penalised for collapsing. The Sharks, no doubt wary of yellow card, were less abrasive in their defence of the second Lions’ rolling maul and Stephan Vermeulen finally managed to put his team onto the scoreboard. Willie du Plessis had no trouble converting. At 45 – 7 to the Sharks and with 16 minutes left on the clock though, this was clearly too little, too late.
The Lions score seemed to only add a renewed vigour to the Sharks. The kick-off wasn’t fielded by the Lions and Jaco van Tonder’s furious chase soon paid off with him collecting and scoring seconds thereafter. Zeilinga failed to add two more but the Sharks would find it hard to complain with a 50 – 7 lead.
A fairly dull 15 minutes would follow before the first truly enterprising play from the Lions. A wonderful line-break after great interplay from the Lions caught the Sharks’ last line of defence out of position and napping and resulted in the simplest of run-in tries for fullback Coenie van Wyk under the posts. This is the kind of threat one would expect from the Lions more often in broken play. With a minute of play left, du Plessis once again converted for a slightly more respectable 50 – 14 scoreline.
The smell of blood was however still lingering in the water and the Sharks were soon circling again. Heimar Williams managed a line-break of his own and nearly dotted down himself before being brought down just shy of the posts. The ball was quickly recycled and Sithole again bullied his way through for his second in the far corner. Fred saved his finest kick for last to seal the score at 57 – 14 to the Sharks.
Sharks fans will be relieved to learn that Cobus Reinach had a much improved performance with speedier service from the base and crisp passes bar a single slip-up. Paul Jordaan seems to be shaking off his rust too after spending so many months out injured. He made two very telling contributions and will hopefully keep improving with more game time. S’bura Sithole was a pleasure to behold at 13 in the second half and has very likely forced Jake’s hand into providing him with more opportunities in this position. Patrick Lambie’s attack of the gain line combined with his tactical appreciation in this game must also have Jake smiling. Combining him with Frans Steyn who again proved his class on the day is a mouth-watering prospect if both manage to build on current form.
The forwards deserve special mention as a unit. They put in the hard yards for this match which meant they didn’t feature as prominently as the Sharks backline in the scoresheet. I doubt Sharks fans would complain about this. They built a great attacking platform for the backs resulting in some beautiful tries. It would be unwise to single out specific players as all the forwards combined well and ultimately contributed to the running rugby.
With more game time the scrum is less of a concern compared to the game against Saracens. The Sharks may also boast one of the most potent line-outs come Super Rugby but time will tell. Lambie needs to work on his kicking at poles, especially from the tougher angles. Jake White has hopefully taken note of this. It should be remedied soon. Lapses in concentration late in the game and defensive positioning (especially last line and cover) also deserves some more attention. These two factors were exploited by the Lions and allowed for the second try. The Sharks should stick to their game-plan when it works as well as it did against the Lions. The pressure it applies will eventually allow the space they so love for their running game. They were a patient outfit today but could have used even more in the final quarter of the game. They look their most dangerous when they practice patience.
Finally, the Sharks can take huge confidence in their commitment. Driving in the screws when you’re ahead and twice scoring on the hooter are usually not behaviours attributed with the Sharks team. Congratulations to them. They impressed in spite of facing inexperienced opposition.Tweet