Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip helped themselves to tries as the British & Irish Lions burst clear for a 39-3 win over Super 14 side the Sharks in Durban, pushing their unbeaten tour record to four matches in the process.
2009 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS TOUR: Wednesday, June 10
SHARKS 3 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 39, ABSA Stadium, Durban (Att: 21,530)
Scorers: Sharks: Pen: Rory Kockott
Lions: Tries: Lee Mears, Mike Phillips, Luke Fitzgerald, Lee Byrne, Jamie Heaslip; Cons: Ronan O’Gara 3, James Hook; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 2
After the disappointment of losing the services of both Stephen Ferris and Leigh Halfpenny to injury, the Lions came good in the second half against the Sharks on an encouraging night for the Irish players in the touring side.
Six members of Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning squad started the Lions’ fourth tour game, with Luke Fitzgerald joining Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara in the back-line and tour captain Paul O’Connell having two familiar faces in the pack in David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip.
With the first Test against South Africa now only a week-and-a-half away, competition for places is hotting up and all six Irishmen advanced their claims for a Test jersey.
This game was a particularly good one for Fitzgerald, who hardly put a foot wrong from his left wing station, and Heaslip, who carried and harried well as the Lions got on top in the second half.
O’Driscoll was denied an intercept try by a last-ditch tackle from Lwazi Mzozo but he will be pleased to have come through his first 80-minute run-out of the tour, with assists for Fitzgerald and Byrne’s scores.
Flanker Wallace also posed a threat with ball in hand, carrying and rucking well in his third game of the tour, while there was another typically workmanlike performance from O’Connell.
The win marked the Lions’ biggest ever triumph over the Natal province as the momentum continues to build ahead of the three-match Test series against the Springboks.
Lee Mears, Mike Phillips, Fitzgerald, Byrne and Heaslip crossed for the Lions, with out-half O’Gara kicking 12 points and his replacement James Hook adding the final conversion as the Lions eased home following a tough first half.
The Lions began brightly and spent the vast majority of the opening quarter penned in Sharks territory but they had to wait until the 23rd minute before putting points on the board.
Jamie Roberts made hard yards on one particular charge, while Heaslip was driven over the line only to be held up by the home defence with 11 minutes played.
O’Driscoll was caught a few metres from the Sharks line following a 75-metre interception and O’Gara turned down two kickable penalty attempts in exchange for a kick to the corner on each occasion, with the Lions unable to turn pressure into points until Mears’ timely intervention.
The Bath and England hooker used his 5ft 8in frame to his advantage to burrow over from close range following impressive work from Phillips and Heaslip.
Phillips cut back inside having dummied to move the ball away at a ruck 10 metres from the try line and, although his break was far shorter than some of his more talked-about efforts for the Ospreys and Wales, it was enough to draw in two defenders and put the Lions on the front foot.
Heaslip was on hand to keep the Lions moving forward as he carried Phillips’ offload into two more Sharks, with Mears then reacting quickest at the ensuing ruck.
O’Gara built on his tally of 22 points from the opening day win against the Royal XV with a well-taken conversion from the left-hand side as the Lions finally gained some reward for their first half dominance.
O’Connell’s men continued to enjoy the upper hand for the remainder of the half but the Sharks’ stubborn defence held firm for the closing 17 minutes and it was they who were the next to score.
Scrum half Rory Kockott, who started for a Namibian Invitational XV against the Springboks a fortnight ago, slotted a relatively straight forward penalty attempt to close the gap to 7-3 with half an hour gone.
The Lions came close to a second try on the stroke of half-time after Shane Williams and Byrne contested O’Gara’s cross-field kick but a marginal knock on from Williams prevented his Ospreys colleague from grabbing the score.
But Ian McGeechan’s class of 2009 only had to wait the duration of the half-time interval and a little extra before adding to their tally.
Phillips continued his strong start to the tour by brilliantly weaving his way through the Sharks defence from the edge of the opposition 22, just two minutes into the second period.
O’Gara sent his conversion attempt narrowly wide for his only miss of the night, still the Lions had finally moved more than one score clear at 12-3.
Kockett missed an opportunity to bring the Sharks back to within touching distance two minutes later as he fell short with a 45-metre penalty and O’Gara made the home side pay with a brace of penalties of his own.
The try of the match arrived on the hour mark when the Lions showed the Springboks, who were watching on from the stands, exactly what they are capable of from quick ball.
Heaslip’s quickly-taken tap following a free-kick offence at a scrum on the Lions’ 10-metre line saw the tourists reach halfway, with possession recycled quickly allowing Tom Croft to feed O’Driscoll in space.
The 2005 Lions skipper raced 35 metres with a fine outside break before his change of angle 10 metres out left Sharks full-back Stefan Terblanche in no man’s land and gave the supporting Fitzgerald an easy finish.
O’Gara added a fine conversion from narrowly inside the left touchline and the Lions found themselves with a 22-point advantage.
Byrne then crossed for a fourth Lions score and his second of the tour after bursting through the smallest of gaps on halfway, handing off one defender and then powering through the tackle of two more on his way to a superb individual try.
O’Gara’s extras made it 32-3 with 12 minutes remaining before Heaslip added the fifth try with the final play of the match.
The energetic Ireland number 8 gained his reward for an industrious display in both the tight and the loose as he squeezed through the Sharks defence following another quickly-taken tap five metres short of the line.
The Kildare man was brought down just short initially but he stretched over in the same movement to put the gloss on a hard-earned with for the Lions.
Replacement out-half Hook kicked the conversion from just to the rights of the uprights and the Lions left the ABSA Stadium with a handsome victory over a fully-committed opposition.
With the first Test against the World champions now just 10 days away, the Lions turn their attentions to the next stage of their preparations – Saturday’s clash with Western Province in Cape Town.
This weekend’s opponents have traditionally given the Lions a tough time, with a Western Province triumph in 1938 followed by five Lions victories of nine points or less prior to the Lions’ 38-21 win at Newlands 12 years ago.
McGeechan and his fellow coaches will be hoping the current crop of Lions can make it five wins from five as the make-up of the Test team starts to become more apparent.
TIME LINE: 23 minutes – British & Irish Lions try: Lee Mears – 0-5; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 0-7; 30 mins – Sharks penalty: Rory Kockott – 3-7; Half-time – Sharks 3 British & Irish Lions 7; 42 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Mike Phillips – 3-12; conversion: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 3-12; 44 mins – Sharks penalty: missed by Rory Kockott – 3-12; 49 mins – British & Irish penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-15; 53 mins – British & Irish penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-18; 60 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Luke Fitzgerald – 3-23; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 3-25; 68 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Lee Byrne – 3-30; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 3-32; 77 mins – British & Irish Lions sin-binning: Phil Vickery (foul play); 79 mins – Sharks sin-binning: Keegan Daniel (professional foul); 80+1 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Jamie Heaslip – 3-37; conversion: James Hook – 3-39; Full-time – Sharks 3 British & Irish Lions 39
SHARKS: Stefan Terblanche; Chris Jordaan, Andries Strauss, Riaan Swanepoel, Luzuko Vulindlu; Monty Dumond, Rory Kockott; Deon Carstens, Skipper Badenhorst, Jannie du Plessis, Steven Sykes, Johann Muller (capt), Jacques Botes, Jean Deysel, Keegan Daniel.
Replacements used: Lwazi Mzozo for Swanepoel (18 mins), Craig Burden for Badenhorst (54), Albert van den Berg for Sykes, Patrick Cilliers for Carstens (both 57), Guy Cronje for Jordaan (68), Michael Rhodes for Botes, Charl MacLeod for Kockott (both 71).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Lee Byrne (Ospreys/Wales); Shane Williams (Ospreys/Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster/Ireland); Ronan O’Gara (Munster/Ireland), Mike Phillips (Ospreys/Wales); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Lee Mears (Bath/England), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Paul O’Connell (Munster/Ireland) (capt), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), David Wallace (Munster/Ireland), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland).
Replacements used: Simon Shaw (London Wasps/England) for O’Connell, Riki Flutey (London Wasps/England) for Roberts (both 64 mins), Matthew Rees (Scarlets/Wales) for Mears, Phil Vickery (London Wasps/England) for Adam Jones (both 69), Mike Blair (Edinburgh/Scotland) for Phillips (71), James Hook (Ospreys/Wales) for O’Gara (79). Not used: Joe Worsley (London Wasps/England).
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)