GARETH DUNCAN, reporting from Ellis Park, watched the Lions break their 12-year Currie Cup title drought with a 42-16 hammering of the Sharks.
After 12 years of silverware starvation, the Lions have finally fed.
The 26-point victory completed a dream campaign – which included a table-topping run throughout the league phase and an impressive 29-20 semi-final win over a WP side that had six World Cup Springboks in their match day squad. This result was also the Lions’ first Currie Cup final triumph at Ellis Park in 61 years.
The Lions wanted it more than their opposition. The Sharks, who struggled for momentum and lacked a clinical edge, looked second best for most parts of the match. The hosts ran faster, tackled harder and toiled tirelessly around the park. That determination – no – that hunger for victory influenced John Mitchell’s ‘no-name brands’ to thump a strong, Springbok-laden Sharks side.
Those who backed a win for the visitors pointed to the quality of their squad, which included seven World Cup Boks. But this match proved to be one game too much for the likes of Bismarck du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira, who struggled to make any trademark impact after long and tiring year. There was also a lack of cohesion, despite this group spending the past three weeks together.
The Lions, who’ve played generally the same side since day one of Super Rugby in February, worked like a well-oiled machine. But during this impressive team performance, the player who made the ultimate difference was flyhalf Elton Jantjies. The youngster showed Mitchell was correct in selecting him ahead of veteran Butch James during the play-off stages. After starring in the Lions’ semi-final win last Saturday, the 20-year-old displayed a Man of the Match performance as he kicked 24 points without missing one attempt.
The platform was set with a good showing in the first half. The Lions mixed moments of impressive attacking play with a resilient defence to hold a 19-6 half-time lead.
Jantjies and fullback Jaco Taute, who nailed a 57m penalty, traded penalties with flyhalf Frederic Michalak early on before wing Michael Killian scored the first try of the match. From a scrum in centre field, centre Doppies la Grange broke the Sharks defence through a set-piece move. His offload put Killian clear.
But it looked like the half would end badly for the Lions. Prop CJ van der Linde had a moment of madness in the 32-minute when he threw Sharks skipper Keegan Daniel over his shoulder whilst clearing a ruck. It earned him a yellow card. The Sharks built momentum with their one-player advantage and paid four visits to the Lions’ red zone. However, they couldn’t find a much-needed finish and the Lions escaped without conceding any points.
Then there was a controversial moment early in the second half when Willem Alberts scored a try that should not have been allowed. The Sharks flanker broke the Lions’ defensive line, but lost the ball forward in the process. However, the knock-on wasn’t sighted by the officials and referee Mark Lawrence, who seeked advice from his assistant, awarded the try. The Sharks were back in it as Michalak’s conversion made it 22-16. Game on.
The Lions, however, had other plans as that was the Sharks’ last score of the match. The following 31 minutes was arguably the best passage of play the Lions have showcased this year.
It was a strong performance that secured 20 points to seal the famous win. First, Pat Cilliers powered over from close range after the Lions attacked from deep. Jantjies added two penalties before Taute had the pace to finish another attacking move in the corner. The following conversion was the final nail in the Sharks’ coffin.