The Cell C Sharks survived some anxious moments at the end of a truly absorbing and fully entertaining Vodacom United Rugby Championship to defeat the Emirates Lions 47-37 in Johannesburg on Saturday.
11 tries was testament more to the attacking prowess than poor defence and ultimately six tries to five was the product of an outstanding match where the Cell C Sharks were just that little bit better to gain the bonus point win in a high-scoring match at Emirates Airline Park.
Boeta Chamberlain scored the first points of the game with a well-struck, long-range penalty after the home side had slowed ball down on the ground. But almost immediately afterwards, the Lions capitalised on a knock-on and the quick counter-attack caught the defence out of alignment, the space enough to earn the first try of the game.
Moments later and almost directly from the kick-off, the Lions attacked down the flank, kicked ahead for the chase and won the race to the tryline for the second try. The conversion from out wide was off-target, but a 12-3 lead after 11 minutes was not what the Cell C Sharks would have liked.
But it was early and the visitors were not to be passengers in this game. A quite remarkable fightback involving more than half the team off an attacking scrum saw Aphelele Fassi breaking through the last line of defence, showing his pace and guile to go over. Chamberlain added the extras to reduce the deficit to just two points.
If the Lions could score twice in the matter of minutes, so could the Cell C Sharks. A Lions overthrown lineout was pounced on by Kerron van Vuuren who made plenty of metres before the backline got involved and Makazole Mapimpi had the pace to chase the grubber, field the ball and dot down.
Four tries scored in the opening quarter had delivered plenty of action and a 15-12 lead for the Cell C Sharks, but perhaps some concerns for the defence.
Five minutes into the second quarter, the Lions equalised with a penalty secured from an up-and-under and then went ahead with a second penalty just before the half-hour mark from off-sides on defence to take an 18-15 lead.
The lead changed hands once again, this time Kerron van Vuuren at the back of a driving maul, a solid and clinical effort that slowly built the momentum to set up a glorious forward effort and a 20-18 lead.
The Lions tried their luck with two lineout mauls, but neither yielded and reward against some stern defence, and then two good steals on the ground gave the Cell C Sharks the impetus to attack with venom, Mapimpi speeding down the touchline and then cutting in to score his second try and his team’s bonus point with seconds remaining in the half. Chamberlain added the conversion for a four try to two, 27-18 lead and bring to an end a highly-entertaining first half.
The Cell C Sharks extended their lead with an early penalty, thanks to great work from Hyron Andrews to chase the kick-off and force the Lions’ error that eventually led to a penalty, Chamberlain’s boot pushing the lead to 12 points.
The Lions scored their third try 10 minutes into the second half as they pinned the Cell C Sharks in their 22 and eventually came good, the conversion cutting the deficit to five points.
Mapimpi was gifted his hat-trick, although the pressure that came to bear forced the mistake, an enterprising effort on attack saw the ball grubbered ahead and then on defence hacked away, but directly into the Springbok wing’s hands and he could have walked the ball over the tryline, the conversion restoring the 12 point lead.
Argentine international Tito Bonilla, on for Chamberlain at flyhalf was quickly into action as he had a long range penalty effort sail effortlessly through the posts to push his team 15 points ahead with the final quarter looming.
But the result was not yet delivered despite the glaring difference on the scoreboard as the Lions managed to score in the corner after some brutal close-quarter drive and defence. No conversion left the margin at 10 points, 40 points to 30.
The contest continued to produce nerves as the Lions scored their fifth try with 10 minutes of the game remaining and with the conversion from out wide, there were now just three points in it.
With the game winding down towards its conclusion, a scrum penalty to both sides, latterly to the home side who then threatened to spoil the Cell C Sharks party, found the pressure on their attack too much to handle, the ball was turned over and then sent wide.
Mapimpi received the ball on the wing, kicked ahead and regathered. Penalty advantage accrued, but somehow captain Lukhanyo Am managed to grab the ball and dot down in the corner.
Bonilla converted from the touchline to close out a quite remarkable match, the Cell C Sharks 47-37 victors.