Victory stirs sleeping giant of SA rugby

2011-10-31 00:00

IF ever evidence was needed that rugby essentially remains a team sport, then the Golden Lions provided it in heaps at Ellis Park on Saturday evening when they thumped the Sharks 42-16 in the Currie Cup final.

The Sharks’ parade of 13 international caps in their starting line-up was opposed by the Lions’ no-name brand players, but individual talent proved no match for team effort on the day.

It was also a victory for skill over brawn as the Sharks, muscular and bruising, held the advantage in possession and territory while the Lions did the scoring. Often playing off the back foot, the Lions hungrily seized every scoring opportunity, running in three tries to the Sharks’ fortunate one, while home team flyhalf Elton Jantjies kicked everything in sight.

It was the heaviest defeat in a Currie Cup final since 1980 when Northern Transvaal smashed Western Province 39-9 at Loftus. The 26-point winning margin was, it should be remembered, achieved by a team containing seven Rugby World Cup Springboks. The victory broke the Lions’ 12-year title drought and it was also the Lions first Currie Cup win in Johannesburg in 61 years.

It was, as Sharks coach John Plumtree was quick to point out, a thoroughly deserved victory and just reward for an excellent Currie Cup campaign.

The Lions, while unable to match Plumtree’s forwards for brawn, were certainly the hungrier team and it showed in their superb defence, in their hits on the Sharks’ big runners, in their scrambling defence and in their desperation to turn over possession at the tackle.

Indeed, the Lions’ work on the ground, their ability to win possession and penalties, were a decisive factor in the contest, breaking the Sharks’ continuity and preventing them from turning territory into points.

The Sharks applied most of the first-half pressure, but their discipline cost them dearly as they conceded six penalties in the opening quarter. Four were kicked — three by Jantjies and one, a monster from close to 60 metres, by Jaco Taute. And when Doppies la Grange exposed the Sharks’ ongoing midfield problem by dummying Stefan Terblanche and sending Michael Killian on a dash to the line, the Sharks trailed 19-3 after just 25 minutes.

While the Lions scored on every trip into Sharks’ territory, Keegan Daniel’s team missed a host of opportunities. Twice they turned down kickable penalties in search of tries and twice they promptly surrendered possession. Time and again, but often without strong support, Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel, Beast Mtawarira and Bismarck du Plessis drove at opponents, but the Lions’ defences held.

The Sharks failed to protect their ball, coughing up possession and penalties even against 14 men after Lions prop CJ van der Linde was carded after dumping Daniel at the side of a ruck.

A Freddie Michalak penalty and a neat Jantjies drop maintained the status quo (22-9) early in the second half, but it seemed that the rugby gods were starting to smile on the Sharks as Alberts, clearly embarrassed, ran through to score after clearly knocking on in the build-up (assistant referee Christie du Preez told referee Mark Lawrence the ball had come off the hand of a Lions player).

The Sharks, trailing by just six (22-16) eight minutes into the second half, playing with greater urgency and with the Lions captain Josh Strauss leaving the field with concussion, suddenly, if only briefly, seemed the more likely winners.

Alberts, by far their most effective player on the day, immediately burst through again and only a brave tackle by scrumhalf Michael Bondesio prevented the Sharks taking the lead. It was as close as they got.

The Lions gathered themselves and immediately struck back, moving the ball into open spaces and it was finally prop Patric Cilliers who plunged over. Jantjies kept punishing Sharks’ errors with two more penalties and then Killian, running an excellent line in midfield, found a yawning gap for Taute to score. Jantjies, from the touchline, converted and the Lions were out of sight at 42-16.

A composed and organised Jantjies succeeded with all nine attempts on goal (five penalties, three conversions and a drop) for 24 points to take the man-of-the-match award, but this was a victory fashioned by a stirring team effort rather than by the heroics of one man.

The Sharks held a clear edge in the scrums, but even that turned nasty for them in the last quarter when referee Lawrence penalised Springbok loosehead Mtawarira for illegal binding at three successive scrums.

It was a particularly satisfying day for three former Sharks in the Lions squad (Cilliers, Michael Rhodes and Strauss’ replacement, Warren Whiteley) while Michaelhouse would have enjoyed the sight of four old boys on the field at the same time (Pat Lambie and replacement scrumhalf Ross Cronje for the Sharks and the Lions’ Cilliers and Rhodes).

It was the most romantic of rugby upsets. The Lions, as coach John Mitchell pointed out, remained calm in the face of early pressure, a yellow card and a disputed try to win going away.

In the words of acting captain Doppies la Grange, ordinary players stood up and made history against a team of internationals.

The Lions (and formerly Transvaal) have for years been a major disappointment on and off the field. But prompted by coach Mitchell, a giant in South African rugby is starting to stir again.

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