The Cell C Sharks got our 2019 Vodacom Super Rugby preparations off to an important start with a tough hit-out against the Lions in the Super Hero Sunday double-header at Cape Town Stadium.
The Lions prevailed 19-14, but it could so easily have been a different result in a game of two halves, the Lions enjoying more possession in the first half, but completely under the cosh in a pulsating second half when the game really came to life with the Cell C Sharks young guns delivering performances to be proud of.
With both sides sporting impressive and very strong line-ups – certainly not too experimental at all – it was always going to be a keenly-contested clash between two proud teams who have contested the final of the tournament the most in recent years.
The opening period was a settling down for both sides looking to find their playing rhythm, both enjoying early opportunities but neither able to finish off. There were exciting passages of play and very few errors considering how early this is in the season.
Despite every good intention from the players, by the end of the first quarter when referee Jaco Peyper called time for a water break, no-one had been able to break the deadlock with the scoreboard yet to register a point. Yes, there had been mistakes but that did not detract from the high quality of play and certainly resolute defence from both sides.
Five minutes into the second stanza, Makazole Mapimpi latched on to a loose pass under pressure, his intercept in the midfield seeing him sprinting to the tryline for the first score of the game, with Curwin Bosch adding the two.
With the Lions enjoying a surfeit of possession, indeed a full two-thirds, it was inevitable that the pressure would eventually take its toll. The Sharks, despite defending heroically for a 10 minute period following their try, eventually couldn’t hold back the indomitable Malcolm Marx who barged his way over in the 35th minute.
Jantjies converted and there wasn’t a lot more play remaining in the half, with the honours shared seven apiece at the break. Given the lion’s share of possession and territory enjoyed by the team from Joburg, they probably would have come off the more disappointed side for not doing more with it, while the Cell C Sharks would have been aware that they needed to secure more ball possession.
Head coach Robert du Preez made a number of changes for the second half but despite the interruption, it proved to be a great catalyst to some exciting, attacking rugby from the Cell C Sharks who nearly closed out a handful of very positive efforts. Clearly the young guns wanted to prove a point.
Unfortunately a moment of indiscipline gave the Lions an opportunity they wouldn’t have had and attacking off a lineout managed to score their second try, this one in the corner. Jantjies’ touchline effort drifted across the posts, but the Lions now held a 12-7 lead after 50 minutes.
Akker van der Merwe then came on as a sub and immediately made his presence felt. His first touch was a successful lineout throw, his second a powerful maul over the tryline for an amazing score-equalling effort. Bosch achieved what Jantjies couldn’t, converting from out wide to give the Cell C Sharks a slender lead.
With 15 minutes of the game remaining, the Lions were gifted a try when a good attacking effort went awry and the loose ball was snatched up my the Lions speedster who raced down the touchline to score his team’s third try. Jantjies converted for a five point lead.
Despite the Cell C Sharks throwing everything into the final moments and completely dominating the closing part of the game, we just couldn’t turn the overwhelming pressure into points and the Lions managed, against the odds, to hold out for a win.
While no loss can be accepted as “ok” in the context of this warm-up match, the performance was more important than the result and there was plenty of the coaching staff to applaud, not least of all the effort from his young guns who really set the game alight in an exciting second half that should have yielded greater rewards.