Phillips hammers toothless Sharks to stake Test claim

Sharks 3 British & Irish Lions 39
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The Independent Online

Ian McGeechan, the Lions head coach, has done away with the traditional split between weekend and midweek teams, which goes at least some of the way to explaining why the tourists are more impressive under floodlights than under sunlight. Last night they ripped up one of South Africa's more powerful provincial sides with a five-try performance here, staring down the Sharks at their point of strength – a forward pack boasting a sprinkling of full internationals – and opening up after the interval to race away with a fourth victory in as many starts.

Everyone knew that Springbok calls had badly undermined the home side's back division: there was no Ruan Pienaar, Francois Steyn or Adrian Jacobs to threaten the Lions in midfield; no Odwa Ndungane or J P Pietersen to burn them out wide. Sure enough, the hosts were entirely toothless away from contact. Had these particular Sharks been lurking in the nearby Indian Ocean, they would have had to gum bathers to death.

But up front, they were expected to pose real problems, and it was here that the Lions made a point to the Springboks watching from the stand. Paul O'Connell and Alun-Wyn Jones, ably assisted by the elastic Tom Croft, ruled the roost at the line-out – indeed, the much talked-about pairing of the middle jumpers was a notable success in all respects – while Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones scrummaged strongly against their rival props, although the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, took a temporary dislike to Jenkins's manner of dealing with the highly-regarded Jannie du Plessis during an intense period of close-quarter combat in the first half.

It was from this platform that the likes of Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace, the two Irish back-rowers, and, most strikingly, the Welsh scrum-half Michael Phillips made their cases for inclusion in the team for the first Test at this same wonderful stadium a week on Saturday. Phillips turned in quite a performance, repeatedly engaging the hard-tackling Sharks loose forwards around the fringes and, when the clear-out at the breakdown was sufficiently dynamic, releasing his backs with some sweetly-timed passes. He also scored the crucial try 75 seconds into the second period – an individual effort that had more than a touch of the Gareth Edwards about it.

The Lions were 7-3 ahead – a miserable advantage, given their surfeit of first-half possession – when, virtually straight from the restart, Phillips spotted a mismatch against Steven Sykes, the Sharks lock. A big dummy left Sykes looking like... well, a big dummy, and when Chris Jordaan raced off his wing to snuff out the danger, a sidestep did for him, too. Phillips touched down in the left corner and despite Ronan O'Gara's failure to convert, the contest was pretty much over.

O'Gara's penalties on 48 and 53 minutes took the Lions well out of sight, and from there on in it was an amble: Brian O'Driscoll (left), revelling in the red-shirted environment in a way he might have done in New Zealand four years ago but for the deeply questionable attention he received from a couple of All Black ruffians, created tries for Luke Fitzgerald (with a short pass out of contact) and Lee Byrne (with a long one, beautifully delayed), and at the death, the energetic Heaslip tapped the final penalty to himself and finished with a horizontal flourish. As for the Sharks, only an early penalty from the excellent scrum-half Rory Kockott saved them from an embarrassing blank.

If there was a serious negative for the tourists, it was the turnover count. Wallace, a natural open-side flanker, made a better fist of the fetching duties at the tackle area than Joe Worsley, a natural blind-side flanker, managed in Bloemfontein last weekend, but even so, the Lions conceded 13 turnovers. This must have disturbed the coaching staff, not least because the Sharks did not have a pilferer of the quality of Heinrich Brussow, the Free State Cheetahs breakaway. If the Lions cough up 13 pieces of possession to the Springboks, they will be laughed out of town.

In addition, there was a worrying injury to Jamie Roberts, who pranged his shoulder during the first half and was heavily strapped the moment he was withdrawn from the fray early in the final quarter. Phil Vickery, on as a late replacement, also had his problems – this time on the disciplinary front. The England prop was spotted behaving "recklessly" at a ruck and disappeared to the sin bin after just eight minutes of activity. Not that the Lions will worry too much about this little transgression. With the Bokke hordes looming on the horizon, a little over-enthusiasm is entirely in order.

Scorers: Kwazulu-Natal Sharks: Penalty Kockott. British and Irish Lions: Tries Mears, Phillips, Fitzgerald, Byrne, Heaslip. Conversions O'Gara 3, Hook. Penalties O'Gara 2.

Kwazulu-Natal Sharks: S Terblanche; C Jordaan (G Cronje, 61), A Strauss, R Swanepoel (L Mvovo, 18), L Vulindlu; M Dumond, R Kockott (C McLeod, 72); D Carstens (P Cilliers, 56), R Badenhorst (C Burden, 26-36 and 53), J Du Plessis (Carstens, 72), S Sykes (A Van den Berg, 56), J Muller (capt), J Botes (M Rhodes, 72), J Deysel, K Daniel.

British and Irish Lions: L Byrne (Wales); S Williams (Wales), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), J Roberts (Wales), L Fitzgerald (Ireland); R O'Gara (Ireland), M Phillips (Wales); G Jenkins (Wales), L Mears (England), A Jones (Wales), A W Jones (Wales), P O'Connell (Ireland, capt), T Croft (England), D Wallace (Ireland), J Heaslip (Ireland).

Replacements: R Flutey (England) for Roberts, 65; S Shaw (England) for O'Connell, 65; M Rees (Wales) for Mears, 70; P Vickery (England) for A Jones, 70; M Blair (Scotland) for Phillips, 72; J Hook (Wales) for O'Gara, 82.

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).

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