Ruan Combrinck kicked a monster 58-metre penalty, with two minutes remaining in this Super Rugby quarter-final, as the Lions came from behind to edge the Sharks 23-21 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg in a cracking South African derby.
Johan Ackermann’s team had won the previous five games against the Sharks, including twice this season, but an off day by Elton Jantjies and his chargers almost cost the table-toppers, who seemed to have choked in the pressure game.
The Sharks led 3-14 until Stephan Lewies was yellow carded in the 46th minute. The Lions scored twice through Franco Mostert and skipper Jaco Kriel while the lock was off, to claw their way back into the contest.
Soon after, Lionel Mapoe scored after some brilliance from Harold Vorster to give his team a 20-14 lead with 18 minutes to play.
Daniel du Preez, who was a powerhouse for the visitors, scored under the posts as the Durban men hit back. Curwin Bosch’s conversion gave his team a one-point lead as the clock ticked down.
However, last year’s losing finalists had one more play in them. Jantjies, who left 10 points on the field after a disastrous day with the boot, gave way for Combrinck.
The winger stepped up, and under enormous pressure, pulled a rabbit from the hat to the delight of the home team’s support.
The victory gives Ackermann’s team their 13th consecutive win in the tournament: a South African record.
They will be at home next week against the defending champion Hurricanes, who beat them in last year’s final in Wellington.
The Lions have now won five games this season against the teams that have reached the play offs and three of those are against the Sharks.
The Durban-based franchise has been runners-up five times, lost in the semifinals on four occasions and been knocked out in the quarterfinals or preliminary playoffs, twice before today: make that three, now.
The game did not go according to plan for the home team until late in the match. They started with nervous tension which could be seen in their rushed, shoddy attacks, poor handling and bad passing.
They tried to do everything at 100 miles per hour and it caused mistakes. The Sharks, on the other hand, were composed and excellent in defence.
Du Preez’s team were organised in their defensive lines and their scramble defence halted all the Lions’ attacks.
Jantjies – after missing a simple kick a minute earlier – gave his side the lead with a penalty from in front.
However, judging from his shaky kicking and handling, his head was not in the game. A minute after the restart, the Springbok flyhalf made a crucial error.
The Sharks hit back after Jantjies threw a disastrous interception to Lukhanyo Am after Andre Esterhuizen knocked down Mapoe’s attempted lob.
The centre offloaded and the ball was transferred to Jean-Luc du Preez. The flanker sent Jacobus van Wyk away in the corner. Bosch missed the conversion, but the Lions had been warned.
Minutes later, Bosch dropped back, deep into the pocket, steadied himself, and under no pressure whatsoever, banged over a drop-kick to extend the Sharks’ lead to five.
The game was still all with the home team, however, every attack faltered with poor distribution and handling. Jantjies missed another penalty before knocking on late in the half to gift possession to the visitors.
From this mistake, the Sharks won a penalty and Bosch extended his side’s lead with a difficult kick.
Andries Ferreira knocked on inside the Sharks’ 22 for the Lions’ 10th handling error.
Jacques van Rooyen was penalised for illegal scrummaging. Bosch sent the ball deep into the Lions’ 22, then Ferreira was penalised for offsides at the ruck, giving the Sharks flyhalf another shot at goal.
The 20-year-old made no mistake from distance and the visitors, against the odds, led by 11 points at the break.
Within minutes of the restart, Lewies was sent to the bin and the Lions scored twice. First Mostert crashed over, then his skipper barged over the whitewash after 11 phases of go-forward rugby by his team.
Jantjies missed both conversions, so the Sharks still held a lead, albeit a slender one point lead at 13-14.
It was all red and white and soon after, the Lions scored after some quick thinking by Harold Vorster.
Vorster took a quick-tap penalty near his 22 and raced down the field, drew Garth April and sent the supporting Mapoe away for the Lions’ third try.
This time, Jantjies could not miss, giving his team a six-point lead and 17 unanswered points since half-time.
Mostert was yellow carded in the 66th minute and the visitors took advantage, scoring through the superb Daniel du Preez. Bosch’s conversion put the Sharks back in the lead.
With 10 minutes to go, the Lions won a penalty. Up stepped Combrinck, but the wing’s kick was wide; this was the 13th point left on the field by the Lions.
The Sharks went close through Van Wyk, but Courtnall Skosan’s last-ditch tackle saved the day. Bosch also missed two drop-kicks, which ultimately, proved costly.
With time almost up, the Lions were awarded a penalty inside their half after some poor play by Lwazi Mvovo, who gifted them the ball and the penalty.
Combrinck did not shy away, instead, he raced up to collect the ball and gestured for the kicking tee: cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Final Score: Lions 23 (3) Sharks 21 (14)
Tries – Mostert, Kriel, Mapoe
Pen – Jantjies, Combrinck
Con – Jantjies
Cards – Mostert (Yellow, 66th minute)
Tries – Van Wyk, D. du Preez
Pen – Bosch (2)
Con – Bosch
Drop – Bosch
Cards – Lewies (Yellow, 46th minute)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Ref 1: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant Ref 2: Egon Seconds
TMO: Marius Jonker
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Albertus Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Francois Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Francois de Klerk, 22 Sylvian Mahuza, 23, Rohan Janse van Rensburg
15 Lwazi Mvovo, 14 Jacobus van Wyk, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Sibusiso Nkosi, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Jacobus Reinach, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Jean-Luc du Preez, 6 Philip van der Walt (captain), 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Coenraad Oosthuizen, 2 Mahlatse Ralepelle, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Jean Droste, 20 Lubabalo Mtembu, 21 Michael Claassens, 22 Garth April, 23 Jeremy Ward