Lions beat Sharks 42-16 to win Currie Cup
Updated: October 29, 2011, 14:21
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JOHANNESBURG(AP) The Lions ended a 12-year wait for a Currie Cup title on Saturday, beating the defending champion Sharks 42-16 at Ellis Park for their first South African championship since 1999 and the first at home for 61 years.
The Lions outscored a Springboks-filled Sharks team three tries to one and young flyhalf Elton Jantjies kicked 24 points to underline a convincing win for former All Blacks coach John Mitchell's team.
Left wing Michael Killian went over in the 26th minute for a 19-3 lead for the Lions, once the giants of South African rugby in the mid-1990s but who fell on hard times over the last decade.
The Sharks struck back with a controversial score from Springboks flanker and former Lions player Willem Alberts early in the second, but that spurred the home team on and they responded through prop Pat Cilliers before Killian broke again to set up fullback Jaco Taute near the end.
The Lions' first outright title at home since 1950, when they won under the former name Transvaal, completed a remarkable turnaround for the Johannesburg outfit. They slumped to 0-13 in Super rugby last year - the worst losing streak ever in the southern hemisphere competition.
The team also battled boardroom problems, a bitter failed takeover by an investment company and won the historic Currie Cup - South Africa's treasured rugby competition - with a team of few outright stars.
"It's an awesome feeling,'' the 21-year-old Jantjies said. "I want to thank my team mates for putting the platform there for me. We went through tough times in Super rugby but the guys played for each other and that's pulled us through.''
The Lions' long-awaited glory was also undoubtedly down to the influence of New Zealander Mitchell, who arrived after the disastrous Super 14 season last year and turned the strugglers into South African champions in the space of 16 months.
"They showed a lot of trust in each other,'' Mitchell said. "A good performance considering the pressure early on our goal line. That's what rugby's about, you have to endure the tough times and there has been a lot, even before my time.
"If you want something really bad you have got to go there. I'll remember this moment for the rest of my life.''
Jantjies was key as the Lions wore down a Sharks team containing South Africa international forwards Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira, Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel.
Jantjies landed a perfect eight kicks from eight - as well as a second-half drop goal - to keep the Lions ahead throughout after they went 3-0 up after three minutes.
The Durban-based Sharks couldn't make their territorial advantage and greater share of possession count in the first 40, and were then hit by two clinical counterattacks in the second to miss out on a third title in the last four seasons.
"Very proud of the boys for getting here but I thought on the day we didn't pitch up and, jeez, what an unbelievable performance from the Lions team,'' Sharks captain Keegan Daniel said.
"At times we had momentum but we couldn't convert into points and that's finals rugby. You've got to convert.''
Doppies La Grange broke the Sharks' line to set up Killian down the left wing for the first strike and, with Jantjies on-song with his left boot and the Lions scrambling and tackling ferociously to blunt the Sharks, the home team led 19-6 at half time.
The Sharks struck in the 49th - to the dismay of the home crowd - when former Ellis Park favorite Alberts appeared to have knocked on inside the Lions' 22-meter area. The referee and his assistant both waved play on, however, and Alberts strolled in between the posts with the Lions players standing waiting for the whistle.
The controversial score closed the game to six points at 22-16 with former French international Frederic Michalak's conversion.
But the Lions kept their cool to respond with a slick team try seven minutes later as wing Deon van Rensburg and Jantjies made breaks and frontrower Cilliers forced his way over.
Jantjies pushed the Lions 35-16 ahead before Killian burst down the middle of the field with 11 minutes to go, weaved in and then out again to draw the cover defense and set Taute clear for the title-clinching try.
Lions 42 (Michael Killian, Pat Cilliers, Jaco Taute tries; Elton Jantjies 3 conversions, 5 penalties, drop goal; Jaco Taute penalty) def. Sharks 16 (Willem Alberts try; Frederic Michalak conversion, 3 penalties). HT: 19-6.