Sharks feast on limp Lions
The Sharks sent a clear statement of intent when - with all their World Cup Springboks back in action - they dispatched the table-topping Lions by 53-9 in their Currie Cup encounter in Durban on Saturday.
The seven-tries-to-none victory showed that it is going to take something special to take South Africa's premier domestic title away from the defending champion Sharks.
And the men from Durban will host the Cheetahs in one semifinal next week, while the Lions - after having already secured first place on the standings before Saturday's game - will be at home to Western Province in the other semifinal.
However, it is the clinical manner in which the Sharks routed the Lions that will give their opposition in the next two weeks.
The Sharks looked to put the heat on in the set pieces, especially in the scrums, but in their eagerness to get the edge conceded the occasional penalty.
However, as the game wore on - especially after the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, joined the fray in the second half - the Sharks' dominance became more prominent. At times they were walking and toying with the Lions' scrum.
The home team did butcher a couple of moves from line-outs close in the Lions' line, leaving some tries on the table. And the Sharks also conceded too many penalties.
Discipline was the one cause for concern.
The other positive, for the Sharks, from this game was their rock solid defence - denying the usually dangerous Lions runners.
For the Lions there were simply no positives to take for the game, other than their enthusiasm - which brought them nothing, considering their high error count and poor execution.
Both teams were intent on keeping the ball alive in the early exchanges, despite the overcast and damp conditions. However, the finishing is not as clinical as it should be, with a couple of handling errors in the mix.
Burton Francis put the Lions into an early lead, slotting a penalty in the eighth minute, after Eugene van Staden went off his feet.
Sharks No.8 Ryan Kankowski came close to a try in the 12th minute, after a strong burst, but the TMO ruled that he had lost the ball in an attempt to ground it.
Then, in the 15th minute, flyhalf Frederic Michalak manages to force the ball over the whitewash for the first try. However, it again required the intervention of the TMO, who found that a blade of grass with white chalk on it touched the ball. Michalak added the conversion for a 7-3 lead.
In the 21st minute Francis made it 6-7, with an easy penalty - after Marius Joubert failed to release the tackled player.
In the 29th minute the Lions were reduced to 14 men, after lock Michael Rhodes was sent to the sin bin for a lifting tackle offence.
And soon after that the Sharks made their numerical superiority count when Ryan Kankowski went over after some slick hands found a whole in the Lions' defensive wall. Michalak added the conversion for a 14-6 lead.
In the 49th minute Willem Alberts forced his way over, from a solid maul and then ruck ball. The Lions' resistance were now beginning to crumble. Michalak added the conversion for 21-6 lead.
Two minutes later Francis narrowed the gap to 9-21, with a penalty, after the Sharks were caught offside.
In the 57th minute Kankowski got the much sought-after bonus-point try - scoring in a simple move off the back of a dominant scrum. Michalak added the conversion for a 28-9 lead.
Then, in the 65th minute, JP Pietersen settled the matter with an 80-metre intercept try. Michalak's conversion made it 35-9.
The Frenchman added penalties in the 70th and 74th minutes, as the home team continued the rout.
And the Lions' error count mounted alarmingly in the latter stages of the game.
To rub salt into the Lions' festering wounds, Jacques Botes ripped a ball from the Lions' grip and raced 70 metres downfield for another try. Michalak's conversion made it 48-9.
And there was one final blow by the Sharks, with Stefan Terblanche scoring from yet another turnover ball. Jacques-Louis Potgieter could not add the extras, but at 53-9 it is as comprehensive a victory as you can get.
Man of the match: There are few candidates in the Lions team, but plenty from the Sharks. Our award goes to Sharks flyhalf Frederic Michalak - for the way he directed play, including some nifty little chip-kicks and great off-loading, to go with a 100 percent goal-kicking record.
For the Sharks:
Tries: Michalak, Kankowski 2, Alberts, Pietersen, Botes, Terblanche
Cons: Michalak 6
Pens: Michalak 2
For the Lions:
Pens: Francis 3
Yellow card: Michael Rhodes (Lions, 29 - foul play, dangerous tackle),
Sharks: 15 Patrick Lambie, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Stefan Terblanche, 12 Marius Joubert, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Frederic Michalak, 9 Conrad Hoffmann, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (captain), 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Jean Deysel, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Eugene van Staden.
Replacements: 16 Bismarck du Plessis, 17 Jannie du Plessis, 18 Willem Alberts, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 JP Pietersen.
Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Dylan Des Fountain, 12 Doppies la Grange, 11 James Kamana, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Joshua Strauss (captain), 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Michael Rhodes, 4 Wikus van Heerden, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Martin Bezuidenhout, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Patric Cilliers, 18 Franco van der Merwe, 19 Derick Minnie, 20 Elton Jantjies, 21 Butch James, 22 Michael Killian.
Referee: Jason Jaftha
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper, Christie du Preez
TMO: JC Fortuin