File: The Lions Lionel Mapoe is challenged by the Sharks Beast Mtawarira during their 2018 Super Rugby match at Ellis Park Stadium, 17 February 2018.
JOHANNESBURG – Lionel Mapoe scored a brace to propel the Lions to a thrilling 26-19 victory over the Sharks in the opening round of Super Rugby at Ellis Park on Saturday.
In what was an engrossing encounter throughout the 80 minutes, the greater flair and precision of the more familiar Lions outfit proved to be the difference against a Sharks unit with a number of new faces.
And the home side showed a bit more hunger and fight to hold on for the win despite a second-half comeback from the visitors.
Congratulations to the @LionsRugbyCo who beat @TheSharksZA 26-19 in what was a close encounter!— Fidelity Group (@Fidelity_Secure) February 17, 2018
Great way to start a season! Looking forward to seeing how both teams perform in the competition ------------LIOvSHA LetsUnite OurSharks pic.twitter.com/iyHAHAr3VS
It was the Sharks, though, who made the early running when flyhalf Robert du Preez ran a good line to get past opposite number Elton Jantjies to open the scoring in the eighth minute.
But this Lions team, who have been together as a group for the last three years, called on all their experience and nous that has seen them reach two consecutive Super Rugby finals to get back into the game.
Springbok hooker Malcolm Marx – who had an off-day with his throws into the lineout – was still omnipresent in the tight-loose, and he made the ground to set up Mapoe’s first try in the 18th minute to level the scores at 7-7.
But then came the moment of the match. In what was a flowing move, Lions captain Warren Whiteley released rookie wing Aphiwe Dyantyi down the left, and the former UJ Varsity Cup star showed searing pace before putting in a perfect grubber and regaining possession ahead of Robert du Preez to score a fabulous try.
The Sharks were back-pedalling in the scrums, with young tighthead Thomas du Toit coming under huge pressure from Lions No 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
The Emirates Lions clinched their Vodacom Super Rugby opener 26-19 against the Cell C Sharks!LetsUnite LIOvSHA@Fidelity_Secure @HisenseSA @Rhino_Rugby_SA @Xerox @947 @WorldSportsBet @CanterburySA pic.twitter.com/30DVCCoLPG— Emirates Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) February 17, 2018
It resulted in the Sharks escaping from trouble inside their own 22 just before halftime as they forced a penalty at the set-piece.
The Sharks, though, clawed their way back with a well-worked try of their own early in the second half. Du Preez gained considerable momentum up the middle, and the ball went out to Sbu Nkosi, who left Ross Cronj for dead and had enough pace to cross the line ahead of Jantjies.
At 14-12 the match was there for the taking, and it was the Lions who took the initiative. Fullback Andries Coetzee cut the Sharks to shreds, with Sylvian Mahuza showing good skill to keep the ball alive before Mapoe darted over.
The see-saw nature of the game continued near the hour-mark, with new Sharks No 11 Makazole Mapimpi once again getting on the score-sheet after scrumhalf Cameron Wright throwing a beautiful long pass.
In a helter-skelter seven minutes, the Lions had the last say as they rumbled towards the tryline, and Kwagga Smith rolled over and was supported by the TMO’s decision to award the five-pointer.
Jantjies missed a crucial penalty that he should’ve knocked over with seven minutes left, but the Lions made a few vital ruck turnovers in the closing stages to grab all four log points.
Lions 26 (14): Tries: Lionel Mapoe (2), Aphiwe Dyantyi, Kwagga Smith. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3).
Sharks 19 (7): Tries: Robert du Preez, Sbu Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi. Conversions: Du Preez (2).