Cell C Sharks 31
British & Irish Lions 71
IT wasn’t as easy as the final score-line perhaps suggests, and some of the lapses by the tourists will inevitably provide the Springboks with plenty of encouragement as we enter the fortnight leading into the first Test of this summer’s series – but given the disruption the Lions have faced in terms of injury, illness and isolation during the last week, this should still be marked down as a decent 80 minutes for the tourists.
The scores were tied at the break, and the red-carding of Sharks scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse with just six minutes of the second half played was the decisive moment. This youthful South African side were always likely to run out of steam as the game wore on, and being reduced to 14 men left them totally out-gunned.
“I think it is what we are going to get in the Test matches in terms of a South African team coming pretty hard and trying to put us under pressure, seeing if they can get knocked balls and catch us behind the gain-line,” reflected head coach Warren Gatland afterwards. “So, we just need to make sure we are a bit more accurate, and I thought we did a lot better in the second half.”
Chris Harris opened the scoring for the Lions after just four minutes, finishing off a try which was laid on a plate by a scything run up the middle of the park by Duhan van der Merwe – but if this was meant to be the opening salvo in a one-sided romp for the tourists than somebody forgot to send their opponents the memo.
The Sharks struck back through full-back Anthony Volmink after an Elliot Daly fumble in midfield, and they then snatched the lead when powerful bursts from Phepsi Buthelezi and Dylan Richardson set the platform for stand-off Lionel Cronje to find Thaakir Abrahams in the in-goal area with an inch perfect diagonal behind the flat-footed Anthony Watson.
Perhaps for the first time on this tour, the Lions were under something approaching real pressure against a young and game Sharks side, and they initially responded in the right way, by going to the corner and rumbling a line-out drive over the whitewash for skipper for the day Jamie George to get the downward pressure.
But they then fell into the trap of trying to force the game again, with a long, loose pass from Gareth Davies being picked off by Hendrikse, who darted home unchallenged from the best part of 70-yards.
Again the Lions bounced right back, snaffling possession after Sharks failed to control the restart, and a basketball style pass from Dan Biggar allowed Liam Williams to send van der Merwe in for his fifth try of the tour.
It was a bit like Groundhog Day, because the Lions immediately surrendered the initiative once again, with van der Merwe failing to hold onto a pass from Biggar which was a little low and little ahead of him. Abrahams scooped up possession and sent Volmink home.
Fair play to Sharks for taking the match to the Lions, but we must acknowledge that this was nothing compared to the fire and fury the tourists should expect when the Springboks provide the opposition in just under a fortnight’s time, and they were fortunate that in amongst all the good stuff from the ‘hosts’ there was also some fairly week defence.
No sooner had the Sharks claimed that fourth try than they were conceding a ruck penalty and then failing to guard the edge if a ruck, which Tadhg Beirne didn’t need a second invitation to stroll through on his way to making it all-square at the break.
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Two Gareth Davies box-kicks and an intelligent grubber from Daly set a positive tone during the opening minutes, but then van der Merwe threw another loose pass which allowed the Sharks to stark back up field, which is the sort of lapse the big winger needs to avoid as he pushes hard for a Test slot.
Hendrikse then had his moment of madness with a totally unnecessary forearm-elbow to Williams head after the tackle which prompted a red-card from referee Wayne Barnes.
Lions took advantage. Jack Conan rumbled over in the corner to put the Lions ahead, then a quick line-out from Conor Murray set up Daly to slalom home past some tired Sharks defence, then George and Anthony Watson both dotted down for the tourists after some sharp one-pass phase play.
It wasn’t quite one-way traffic. In amongst that glut of tries, Le Roux Roets charged down Murray’s clearance from the base of a ruck 10 yards from the Lions line and the ball ricocheted to Werner Kok for an easy try.
The Lions went past the 60-point mark when Beirne dived in unchallenged for his second and his team’s ninth try of the contest, then a Biggar inside pass sent Anthony Watson streaking upfield from his own 22 leading to Tom Curry scoring with his first touch after replacing Hamish Watson on the flank.
The Sharks dug deep to keep the score almost respectable, and spent most of the final 10 minutes camped on the Lions line. They earned a series of penalties, leading to Murray being sent to the sin-bin, but the South Africans couldn’t find a way through, and another rampaging run by Anthony Watson provided the finishing touches to the win with just under two minutes left on the clock.
The Lions don’t yet know who they will play next but Gatland said afterwards that he thinks there is a good chance it will be the Stormers on Wednesday, with the scheduled match against South Africa A pushed back to next Saturday. “We’ve just got to roll with the punches,” he shrugged.
Cell C Sharks: A Volmink; M Potgieter, W Kok, M Koster, T Abrahams; L Cronje, J Hendrikse; N Mchunu, K van Vuuren, W Herbst (K Adriaanse 57), L Roets, R Hugo, D Richardson, M Gumede (J Labuschagne 50), P Buthelezi .
British & Irish Lions: L Williams; A Watson, E Daly, C Harris (B Aki 67), D van der Merwe; D Biggar, G Davies (C Murray 47); R Sutherland (W Jones 56), J George (K Owens 56), T Furlong (K Sinckler 56), C Lawes (A Beard 66), J Hill, T Beirne, H Watson (T Curry 66), J Conan (S Simmonds 56).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Sharks: Tries: Volmink 2, Abrahams, Hendrikse, Kok; Cons: Cronje 3.
Lions: Tries: Harris, George 2, van der Merwe, Beirne 2, Conan, Daly, A Watson 2, Curry; Con: Biggar 8.
Scoring sequence (Sharks first): 0-5; 0-7; 5-7; 7-7; 12-7; 12-12; 17-12; 19-12; 19-17; 19-19; 24-19; 26-19; 26-24; 26-26 (h-t) 26-31; 26-36; 26-38; 31-38; 31-43; 31-45; 31-50; 31-52; 31-57; 31-59; 31-64; 31-66; 31-71
Yellow cards –
Lions: Murray (76mins)
Red cards –
Sharks: Jaden Hendrikse (46mins)