The MTN Golden Lions recalled the glory days of the 1990s as they peaked in the Absa Currie Cup final and hammered the Sharks 42-16 (halftime 19-6) at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
It was a dream match for the Lions as they were clinical, enormously passionate and almost everything they tried came off. The result was the most one-sided final since 1980 when Northern Transvaal beat Western Province 39-9 in Pretoria.
The Sharks were put to the sword and could score just one try, by flank Willem Alberts, and even then it should never have been allowed, with assistant referee Christie du Preez missing a blatant knock-on by the Springbok.
The Lions scored three tries and were ruthless in taking points when they were on offer, flyhalf Elton Jantjies proving once again that he is one of the brightest talents in South African rugby as he succeeded with all eight of his kicks at goal – five penalties, three conversions and a drop goal for good measure.
Fullback Jaco Taute also slotted one of the biggest kicks ever seen at Coca-Cola/Ellis Park with a monstrous 57-metre effort.
It was the team ethos of the Lions that brought them to a home final and it was the same quality that saw them to a resounding victory.
It was obvious which team had the greater hunger right from the outset as the Sharks tried to run the kick-off out of their own 22 and loosehead prop CJ van der Linde raced across to scrag wing Odwa Ndungane into touch.
The first of a string of penalties the Sharks conceded then came when captain Keegan Daniel set the tone for a performance of little discipline when he pulled former team-mate Michael Rhodes down at the lineout. Jantjies stepped up and calmly kicked the angled penalty, the Lions leading 3-0 from the second minute, and for the rest of the match.
The most extraordinary kick of the game came three minutes later as the stealing skills of flank Derick Minnie and the big boot of Taute combined to put the Lions 6-0 ahead.
The Lions were as efficient and cohesive as usual at the breakdowns, where the Sharks struggled under the keen eye of referee Mark Lawrence, but the visitors were on the board in the 11th minute as the Lions did infringe and flyhalf Freddie Michalak kicked the penalty (6-3).
The Sharks were virtual tourists however for the next 15 minutes as the Lions stretched their lead to 19-3.
The Sharks, faced with the determined running of the Lions forwards, clung on in the tackle and Jantjies kicked a 13th-minute penalty.
There was a chance for the Sharks to score, but the Lions defence was outstanding and lock Franco van der Merwe stole a crucial lineout five metres from the tryline.
A Michalak drop goal was also deflected away by the post and the frustrated Sharks were then penalised twice for having their hands in the ruck. Jantjies was flattened by eighthman Ryan Kankowski in the build-up, but the 21-year-old stepped up and curled the tricky penalty over.
The Lions’ opening try was thanks to a top-class break from outside centre Doppies la Grange, who had a brilliant game.
A dummy caused opposite number Stefan Terblanche to drift across and La Grange then cut back inside through a widening gap before sending wing Michael Killian off on a glorious run to the tryline.
There were two dents to the Lions' cause just before halftime, with Michalak kicking another penalty and Van der Linde being yellow-carded as the officials homed in rather harshly on an over-exuberant clean-out of Daniel at the ruck.
But the Lions are a well-trained side whose commitment and organisation in defence is outstanding and the Sharks could not score any points while the Lions’ only starting current Springbok was off the field.
Michalak did kick a penalty, after the Sharks had disrupted a lineout, early in the second half to close the gap to 10 points, but the visitors then dropped the restart to put the Lions straight back on attack, allowing Jantjies to slot a drop goal between the uprights.
In the 51st minute, Saru’s decision not to appoint top referees to run touch came back to haunt them as the Sharks scored a try thanks to an appalling blunder by Du Preez.
Hooker Bismarck du Plessis made headway down the left touchline, Daniel was up to support at pace, and he then passed the ball to Alberts, who clearly dropped the ball, but regathered and stormed over the line as the Lions stopped playing.
Referee Lawrence sensed something was wrong and asked Du Preez whether there had been a knock-on, but the assistant referee was oblivious to the mistake.
Michalak’s conversion closed the gap to 22-16 and the Lions could have allowed what seemed a potential turning point to rattle them.
Instead it inspired them and they responded in ferocious fashion.
Hard, straight running by La Grange took the Lions into the Sharks’ 22, Jantjies then stepped inside the defence and prop Pat Cilliers, who played all his early rugby in KZN, powered through Jean Deysel and Jannie du Plessis to score in the shadow of the poles.
Two more Jantjies penalties put the Lions 35-16 ahead after 65 minutes, and the Sharks then saw their dominant scrum begin to unravel.
Their race was run and the Lions put the victory to bed with a move coach John Mitchell would have been dreaming about.
Scrumhalf Michael Bondesio, who has proven such an effective link between forwards and backs for the Lions, exchanged pop passes with Van der Merwe close to a ruck.
He then found wing Michael Killian, who has a splendid habit of cutting the line at pace, the Eastern Province product bursting straight through the middle and then finding Taute, who showed he has the pace to go with his big boot as he scored in the corner.
It has taken intensive labour by the Lions management, coaching staff and players to turn things around after a miserable last few years, but now they have landed the biggest prize in South African rugby.
And it is well-deserved too. While a player like Van der Linde had an enormous game in the tight-loose, it is the development of new stars like Van der Merwe, Minnie, captain Joshua Strauss, Jantjies and Taute that is most pleasing.
La Grange, too, has been at the Lions through the tough years and is clearly revelling in the new-found confidence all around him.
There has been a tremendous air of expectation around Coca-Cola Park in recent weeks, and in Mitchell the Lions have found the inspirational mentor they have been searching for for so long.
Lions - Tries: Michael Killian, Patric Cilliers, Jaco Taute. Conversions: Elton Jantjies(3). Penalties: Jantjies (5), Jaco Taute. Drop goal: Jantjies.
Sharks - Try: Willem Alberts. Conversion:Frederic Michalak. Penalties: Michalak (3).