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Lions drain the Shark Tank

10th June 2009 19:52

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lee mears

Lee Mears: Gets the ball rolling

The British and Irish Lions won their fourth tour match on Wednesday, beating the Sharks 39-3 in Durban with an excellent second-half display.

After a poor and disjointed first half, the Lions turned things around, producing a third quarter of power, pace and guile like we hadn't seen since Johannesburg the week before. Ultimately, the Sharks ended up unable to get their hands on the ball and unable to build up any momentum despite the frequent early errors.

So it was job done, but what might be more significant in terms of the tour is that the win bore many of the hallmarks of Ian McGeechan's better days at Wasps: stacks of possession, unerring defence, a gradual breakdown of the morale and patience of the opposition, clinical execution of late chances as the opposition tired. It is wins like these that the Lions will have to grind out come Test time, but they'll have to make sure they don't give the game away early on.

The Lions were not necessarily chasing points - two kickable kicks were turned down early on for the sake of practicing the driving maul - but they will freely admit they ought to have scored more. How on earth the Sharks managed to trail 7-3 at the break, only some unearthly entity knows. Dominated in the scrums, dominated at the line-outs, in territory and possession, they clung on tenaciously, stealing every scrap or morsel the tourists left unsecured.

That was lots. Far too much. Once again the Lions coaches can look at the breakdown with critical eyes, but these must be more self-critical than at referee Jonathan Kaplan.

There simply were not enough numbers there, and occasionally even less of an idea among the forwards where the ball was going to go next. For a team in which the emphasis all tour has been on training as one, in one system, learning each other's nuances, the lack of cohesion was extremely worrying.

Not that it was always unfamiliarity with each other. The epitomising moment of the confusion cropping up was when Luke Fitzgerald ran into David Wallace after catching an innocuous clearing kick, with Lee Byrne screaming his support inside.

Wallace has been there umpteen times for Ireland in that position, so why on earth Fitzgerald felt compelled to step there is anybody's guess. But there were far too many people doing their own thing at times.

The scrum was once again eviscerated by the imprecise officiating thereof, with the Lions frequently getting shoves on, finding it dropping or finding the opposition props popping up. Often, the Lions were penalised for no fault of their own, which was very frustrating.

Countless first-half scoring opportunities were butchered as well. Brian O'Driscoll's flip pass behind all his supporting runners and into touch was the most glaring, but there were a couple of turnovers right by the Sharks' line and a most comical cross-kick from Ronan O'Gara with nobody out wide but Adam Jones and Jannie du Plessis. The two props ran hard, but the ball was never going to lose the race to touch. Even O'Driscoll himself ruined one, picking off an interception but failing to see either the pacier Luke Fitzgerald inside him or the replacement winger Lwazi Mvovo haring back to catch him just before the line. Fitzgerald could have picked and scored at the tackle, but he knocked the ball on.

The driving maul was the chief weapon of choice for the Lions in the first half, but it was well-defended against. It took six attempts for it to yield a score, with Lee Mears both driving and driven over for a 7-0 lead that took 23 minutes of territorial domination to register.

The Sharks offered little except for game resistance. They kicked well with the wind, but the Lions' line-out was magnificent, with the first twelve all going to hand. It was by far the sturdiest platform they had to build their attacks on, and they used it well.

Rory Kockott landed a penalty from long range after Gethin Jenkins was adjudged to have collapsed a scrum to make it 7-3. The Lions had tow more opportunities to scope in the half but again left the tries out there, with Jamie Roberts - struggling for much of the match from a shoulder injury - left unsupported and Byrne turned over inches short of the line.

Mike Phillips' try in the second minute of the second half turned things for the tourists and it was a peach. The strapping Welsh scrum-half picked off the back of a ruck, dummied and burst, stepping left and dummying the last man before Byrne pushed him over the line to ruin his scoring dive.

The Lions punched the rucks harder after that, keeping the shape neater and giving O'Gara space to unleash a plethora of grubber kicks that struck terror among the Sharks in defence.

A third try would surely have come for O'Driscoll had it not been for the intervention of the post from one such, as it was, the Sharks coughed up two more penalties which O'Gara landed for an 18-3 lead by the hour mark - a mark by which the hosts had visibly spent their energy reserves. One kick from Kockott was barely chased down at all.

A move involving Byrne and O'Driscoll gave the Lions their third try down the left, with O'Gara making it 25-3, then Byrne scored a scorcher down that same wing, with O'Gara repeating his kicking feats. In the final minute, Heaslip plunged over from a ruck to give the Lions the scoreline their superiority deserved, even if their execution had not warranted it.

In case there were any thought of back-patting or self-congratulation, ponder this: a turnover count of thirteen. There is much work still to be done.

Man of the match: Leading from the front, making fewest errors in the first half and storming forward in the second, was Jamie Heaslip. MIke Phillips also deserves a mention for his game-turning moment of magic.

The scorers:

For the Sharks:

Pen: Kockott

For the Lions:

Tries: Mears, Phillips, Fitzgerald, Byrne, Heaslip

Cons: O'Gara 3, Hook

Pens: O'Gara 2

Yellow card: Vickery (77, Lions, stamping), Daniel (78, Sharks, tripping)

Sharks: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Chris Jordaan, 13 Andries Strauss, 12 Riaan Swanepoel, 11 Luzuko Vulindlu, 10 Monty Dumond, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Keegan Daniel, 7 Jean Deysel, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Johann Muller (c), 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Skipper Badenhorst, 1 Deon Carstens.

Replacements:16 Craig Burden, 17 Patrick Cilliers, 18 Albert van den Berg, 19 Michael Rhodes, 20 Charl MacLeod, 21 Guy Cronje, 22 Lwazi Mzozo.

British and Irish Lions: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Shane Williams ,13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 James Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Lee Mears, 1 Gethin Jenkins,

Replacements: 16 Mathew Rees, 17 Phil Vickery, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Mike Blair, 21 Riki Flutey, 22 James Hook .

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan

Assistant referee: Wayne Barnes (England), Jaco Peyper

Television match official: Shaun Veldsman

Assessor: Dennis Immelman

Timekeeper: Paul Ackermann