Johannesburg - An uncharacteristically off-target Lions needed a long-distance, last-gasp penalty by Ruan Combrinck to overcome a stubborn Sharks team in their Super Rugby quarter-final, booking themselves a place in the last four by the skin of their teeth.
Clearly missing the calm influence of injured captain Warren Whiteley, the Lions had most of the possession, but simply couldn’t do much with it thanks to an error-strewn performance and a Sharks team that came prepared.
With the Lions looking to attack at every opportunity and the Sharks seeking to play counter-attacking rugby, the pattern was set: the hosts wanted to treat this as any other Super Rugby game and the visitors came out to play finals rugby.
The Lions were all over the Sharks in the first 10 minutes of the game, thanks to a superior scrum, a functional line-out and some dynamic running with the ball.
But, with the Sharks using a rush defence, the hosts lost their accuracy and started rushing their play and made mistakes at crucial times.
Both sides had their problems in contact, with the Lions coughing up possession and the Sharks turning it over by holding on to it on the ground.
But after much work in that time, all the hosts had to show on the scoreboard for being markedly superior was a penalty by Elton Jantjies.
Contrast that with the Sharks, whose defence enabled them to build a bakery from the crumbs of possession they had.
By almost always being first to the loose ball and being on the lookout for an offload in contact by the hosts, they were leading the game 14-3 at half-time through an intercept try, two penalties and a dropped goal by Curwin Bosch. The try, by winger Kobus van Wyk, was a case in point of the Lions’ laissez-faire approach.
After an unnecessary quick line-out by fullback Andries Coetzee, the under-pressure Lionel Mapoe and Jantjies still tried to offload instead of setting the ball up, giving up the intercept for Van Wyk to score his second gift try against them in two successive weekends.
The two sides’ approach to the game was best typified by the opposing flyhalves, Jantjies and Bosch.
Jantjies made every mistake a flyhalf shouldn’t in a knockout game: spurning 10 points via two missed penalties and conversions, restarting out on the full and making the intercept pass that gave the Sharks their first try.
By contrast, Bosch missed just one of his kicks at goal and was always looking for a drop goal opportunity.
But the Lions were given their way back into the game through Stephan Lewies’ sin-binning for team infringements – a period that saw them score their first two tries of the game, through Franco Mostert and captain Jaco Kriel.
Mostert, too, repaid the favour by getting yellow-carded for collapsing the maul, a period that meant a Sharks try by eighth man Daniel du Preez to put the visitors in the lead going into the last 10 minutes.
But then came Combrinck and his heroics, and the Lions secured a home semi-final against the Hurricanes.