An encouraging second-half showing saw The British & Irish Lions see off The Sharks 39-3 in the Kings Park Stadium in Durban on Wednesday night.
Facing a side shorn of eight of their nine members of the current Springbok squad, The Lions bossed the game in terms of possession and territory but a horribly disjointed attacking performance in the opening 40 minutes meant that their lead was just four points [7-3] at the break, a try from Lee Mears the only reward for their dominance.
However, Mike Phillips’ terrific solo try just after the restart acted as the catalyst for a much-improved second-half performance which featured three further touchdowns, through Luke Fitzgerald, Lee Byrne and Jamie Heaslip.
The Lions had arrived at The Shark Tank hoping for a morale-restoring performance on the back of Saturday’s fortuitous victory over The Cheetahs and with so many likely Test starters in the XV, they were confident of doing just that. However, the first half made for uncomfortable viewing.
They started promisingly, pinning their hosts back inside their own half for much of the opening quarter.
However, the ruthless efficiency which had been so conspicuous in the midweek side’s last outing, against The Golden Lions seven days previously, was nowhere to be seen.
Indeed, The Lions’ ineffectiveness was best summed up by a cross-field kick from Ronan O’Gara to the right wing, where….well, nobody was waiting.
The Munster fly-half, had a particularly poor opening 40 minutes, and also threw the ball straight into touch at one point, too.
However, it would be unfair to single out O’Gara as the reason for The Lions’ ineffectiveness as nearly every player on the pitch was playing well below their best.
The Lions repeatedly turned the ball over when in decent attacking positions, with the breakdown again proving a serious cause for concern. On the plus side, the scrum was reasonably strong and the line-out adequately solid.
And, in fairness, The Lions had already gone close several times before Mears eventually burrowed his way over midway through the first half, finishing off some good work from Phillips.
Indeed, Lee Byrne, Alun-Wyne Jones and Jamie Heaslip had all been held up agonizingly short of the whitewash in the early exchanges, while O’Driscoll looked certain to score when he intercepted a loose pass some 30 meters out from his own line. However, the Ireland centre’s pace over long distances is not quite what it was in his youth and he was superbly chased down by Lwazi Mvovo.
However, there were still far too many turnovers and The Sharks, despite the absence of anything resembling a decent kicking nor indeed a reliable source of line-out ball, only went in four points in arrears at the break, courtesy of a penalty from scrum-half Rory Kockott.
The second half began far more encouragingly for The Lions. Tom Croft, again proving a valuable third option in the air, came up with a clean take at the line-out, and after some good go-forward ball from Jamie Heaslip, Phillips broke the gain-line, cruising past Sharks wing Chris Jordaan before a nice show of the ball left him with all the time in the world to score in the left corner.
O’Gara failed to come up with the extras but, with The Lions now dominating possession once more and now carrying some real menace in attack, two penalties promptly came his way - he made amends by converting both.
The Sharks tried to bite back and things got a little heated but the Lions would not be knocked out of their stride now and the game-clinching try arrived right on the hour, Byrne releasing O’Driscoll down the right wing and the Leinster man waited until the last possible second before leaving his provincial team-mate Fitzgerald with the simplest of finishes in the corner.
O’Driscoll and Byrne then combined for a superb try for the latter, seven minutes later. O’Gara fed O’Driscoll and the Irish skipper, seeing Byrne in space wide on the left, sent a looping pass the way of the Welshman. Byrne had two Sharks in front of him but he breezed past all of them on his way to the same corner in which Fitzgerald had touched down.
A raft of substitutions followed, thus diluting the intensity of the contest but there was still time for Heaslip to worm his way over with the final play of the game to rack up his first ever try for The Lions.
That try, though, gave the final scoreline a rather flattering look in light of what was a patchy and somewhat unconvincing performance from the tourists. Indeed, there is still much more work to be done before The Lions return here next Saturday week for the opening Test with The Springboks.
Sharks: S Terblanche; C Jordaan, A Strauss, R Swanepoel, L Vulindlu; M Dumond, R Kockott; D Carstens, S Badenhorst, J du Plessis; S Sykes, Johann Muller [capt]; J Botes, J Deysel, K Daniel.
Replacements: C Burden, P Cilliers, A van den Berg, M Rhodes, C McLeod, G Cronje, L Mvovo.
British & Irish Lions: L Byrne; S Williams, B O'Driscoll, J Roberts, L Fitzgerald; R O’Gara, M Phillips; G Jenkins, L Mears, A Jones; A-Wyn Jones, P O’Connell [capt]; T Croft, D Wallace, J Heaslip.
Replacements: M Rees, P Vickery, S Shaw, J Worsley, M Blair, R Flutey, J Hook.