The Cell C Sharks went down to the Lions at Growthpoint KINGS PARK on Saturday in their final Vodacom Super Rugby pool match of the season, but will meet the self-same Lions next weekend in the quarters.
With the Hurricanes having won their encounter with the previously unbeaten Crusaders earlier in the day, the result opened the door for the Lions to finish on top of the log and thus earn a potentially tournament-winning route to the trophy.
But in a nasty paradox for the Cell C Sharks, winning against the Lions would have a down-side, while losing would present an upside: victory to build momentum for the knock-outs would deny the Lions top of the log status, but would mean a trip to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders in next week’s quarter-final.
Losing to the Lions would mean the Cell C Sharks would remain in South Africa and play the Lions in next week’s quarter’s – in Johannesburg – a mouth-watering prospect. And indeed, the 27-10 loss ensured that.
Ultimately, the players are professionals and no-one goes out to lose. And the way the first 10 minutes of the game went, it was clear that both sides had pitched up to play. The teams hammered away at each other but it was the Cell C Sharks who struck first blood, Garth April kicking a good 40m effort in howling wind following a scrum penalty in the 10th minute of the game.
After another 10 minutes of back and forth play, the Lions drove over the tryline from an attacking lineout to take the lead, Malcolm Marx the man in possession, but Jantjies couldn’t convert from out wide.
One penalty and one unconverted try scored in the first quarter of the match was testament to how tight and competitive the derby game was, with very little between the two teams.
However, it was the Lions who appeared more nervy, making plenty of uncharacteristic errors in their quest for top spot on the log and that saw their fail to grow any momentum.
But they are not a side that will just lie down and accept what is thrown at them, and although their attacking efforts were generally thwarted by some resolute defence, there was a penalty that Jantjies made no mistake with from directly in front as the Lions took an 8-3 lead with five minutes of the first half remaining.
But then came a moment that potentially changed the game, Elton Jantjies went for a quick 22m drop-out, but kicked it directly to Kobus van Wyk who sprinted past the disorganised defence, through the opposition 22 and over the tryline. Garth April converted and we retook the lead.
But it wasn’t all over just yet as the Lions showed their predatory nature and with the half-time hooter having sounded, they continued to play and eventually closed out their second try, fullback Andries Coetzee scoring in the corner. Jantjies’ boot failed him again and the side went into the break with the visitors holding a narrow 13-10 lead.
After dominating the opening 10 minutes of the second half as far as possession goes, again the Lions had to contend with excellent defence, and all they could come away with for all their efforts was a second three pointer to take them into a 16-10 lead. With their tales up and their game back on track, they forced pressure into points, adding another penalty for a nine point lead with 25 minutes of the game remaining.
The Lions were starting to step it up a gear and were rewarded for some good attack with a try to Jaco Kriel after former Sharks scrumhalf Ross Cronje evaded a number of tackles en-route to huge territorial gain.
With 15 minutes remaining and a 14 point lead for the visitors, there was still enough time for the Cell C Sharks, but there was a sense that the Lions had taken control in an extremely tight clash.
There was a last minute penalty for Jantjies to close out the game, but ultimately the result ensures the best possible week ahead.
While it might not have been the outcome the Cell C Sharks would have liked, the aforementioned upside means next week’s quarter-final encounter is an hour’s flight to Johannesburg rather than intercontinental travel halfway across the world to Christchurch.