Down but not out. Up against a 22-3 first-half deficit facing the defending champions in the Hurricanes, the Lions pulled off a quite remarkable comeback to book their place in the Super Rugby final for the second straight year.
The revival of Johannesburg’s Super Rugby franchise in recent years has been a rare positive story for the competition, which has been beset by frustrations over a bloated schedule and dip in quality.
Meanwhile, quietly under head coach Johan Ackermann, who takes over at Gloucester as soon as Super Rugby concludes next week, the Lions have developed an alluring style of play creating a boatload of tries, attacking from all areas more in the mould of a New Zealand franchise than a side from South Africa.
Saturday’s semi-final was the first time the Lions have faced a New Zealand side all year, thanks to Super Rugby’s heavily-criticised schedule, and they were noticeably caught out by the step-up in intensity as the Hurricanes ran in early tries through TJ Perenara, Wes Goosen and Ardie Savea.
Prop Jacques van Rooyen’s score before the interval gave the Lions hope but few could have expected what was to follow.
Not only matching the Hurricanes’ level but surpassing it, quick tries from Springbok players Ross Cronje and Malcolm Marx drew the Lions level at 22-22.
Ngani Laumape’s try looked to have handed momentum back to the visitors after their shaky start to the second half, but the Lions were not to be denied.
Beauden Barrett, the reigning World Player of the Year, was yellow carded for slowing down the ball before Harold Vorster, Elton Jantjies and Armand van der Merwe secured a memorable 44-29 win.
Running in what was effectively the match-winning score will feel especially sweet for Jantjies, the South Africa No 10 who has taken his fair share of criticism this year, despite the Springboks’ 3-0 series win over France.
To win a first Super Rugby title, in the first ever final hosted at Johannesburg’s famous Ellis Park stadium, the site of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, the Lions will have have to overcome the Crusaders, who defeated the Chiefs convincingly earlier on Saturday in a masterclass of how to win a rugby match without the ball.
No team has won more Super Rugby titles than the Crusaders’ tally of seven. However, it has been nine years since the Crusaders last lifted the trophy, a 20-12 victory over the Waratahs in 2008.
Now under Scott Robertson, the first-year head coach, the Crusaders will make the trip to South Africa in the coming days for their first final appearance since 2014, when they were pipped to the title by the Waratahs in a 33-32 thriller.
Kieran Read’s side have lost just twice all year, against the British & Irish Lions followed by a narrow defeat to the Hurricanes in the final round of the regular season, with Saturday’s victory highlighting the quality of the Crusaders’ defence and pack against a dangerous Chiefs outfit.
Facing the Crusaders at home will be a welcome advantage for the Lions having had to travel to Wellington for last year’s final, which they went on to lose 20-7 to the Hurricanes.
Their run to the final has been even more impressive given the absence of Springbok captain Warren Whiteley. The No 8 was ruled out for the rest of the Super Rugby season at the end of June with a pelvis injury.