Throughout the opening weeks of the tour, Ian McGeechan has warned that the challenges will just get tougher as his side moves towards the three-test series with the Boks. This was supposed to be a proving ground for Paul O’Connell’s men, and they proved a lot.
Never mind that the reigning Currie Cup champions were missing up to 10 players through Springbok calls. The vast majority of the side they turned out were Super 14 players and their pack was close to full strength.
The only problems the Lions faced were of their own making. They created chance after chance in the first half, yet couldn’t convert them.
They experienced a few problems at the breakdown once again, but David Wallace got to grips with both the new laws and the referee in the end and, for once, the tourists came out on the right side of the turn over count.
The scrum was given a thorough examination, and passed with flying colours – save a few inexplicable penalties against them by Jon Kaplan – the lineout functioned well and the defence was superb.
In all three previous games the Lions couldn’t hold their line. This time the Sharks barely got close as the red shirts smashed them down.
If Shaun Edwards is finally getting his up and at ‘em defensive system into everyone’s heads, then the Springboks could have a few problems. The rush defence is not widely used in the Super 14 and the Sharks players looked lost in attack.
Playing into the wind in the first half, Paul O’Connell’s men decided to test their forward power against the strongest pack they had faced on tour. With three Springboks in their front five, and a tried and tested Super 14 back row, the Sharks were looking forward to knuckling down up front.
Their desire was epitomised by overlooked tight head prop Jannie du Plessis, brother of Bismarck, who threw the kitchen sink at Gethin Jenkins. The Welshman found himself on the wrong end of referee Jonathan Kaplan’s whistle as a result and the Lions lost a number of good positions for questionable penalties.
As early as the first couple of minutes O’Connell gave Ronan O’Gara the signal to kick for the corner to give his pack the chance to practice their driving lineout. There was an improvement from the earlier games, but no cigar.
In fact, the Lions had to wait until the 22nd minute before they finally found the right key to unlock the home defence. They dominated the game in terms of territory and possession, yet fell at the last fence every time a try seemed destined.
Twice O’Gara cross kicks failed to bring the desired result. The first one turned into a heavyweight battle between du Plessis and Jenkins and then Shane Williams just failed to hold onto another and the supporting Lee Byrne was denied a try for a knock-on.
They were some of the frustrating moments of a first half that saw the Lions camped in the home half. Lee Mears broke the deadlock after solid bursts from man of the match Mike Phillips and Jamie Heaslip left him with only a few metres to rumble.
O’Gara added the conversion, but the lead was trimmed soon after when Rory Kockott landed a 25-metre penalty seven minutes later.
A minute after the break, Phillips broke from a ruck on the Sharks’ 22, set-up by another Heaslip drive, and mesmerised four defenders before crossing at the left corner. O’Gara’s conversion drifted wide, but the Lions’ pressure was starting to tell.
Two more O’Gara penalties extended the lead and then the backs fired into action when Brian O’Driscoll flashed down the left, drew the last defender and handed Luke Fitzgerald a simple try. O’Gara hit the mark with his conversion superbly.
The Lions rang the changes – Jamie Roberts was taken off after taking two big hits to the ribs – and for Heaslip to snaffle a last-gasp try.
A good night all round – and one that will have had the Springboks sitting up and taking notice.
SHARKS: S Terblanche, C Jordaan (G Cronje 60), A Strauss, R Swanepoel (L Mvovo 17), L Vulindlu, M Dumond, R Kockott (M Rhodes 70), D Carstens (P Cilliers 56), S Badenhorst (C Burden 25-34, 54), J du Plessis (D Carstens 69), S Sykes (A van den Berg 56), J Muller [capt], J Botes (C McLeod 70), J Deysel, K Daniel
LIONS: L Byrne, S Williams, B O’Driscoll, J Roberts (R Flutey 63), L Fitzgerald, R O’Gara (J Hook 78), M Phillips (M Bliar 76), G Jenkins, L Mears (M Rees 68), A Jones (P Vickery 68), A-W Jones, P O’Connell [capt, S Shaw 63), T Croft, D Wallace, J Heaslip.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa).