The Lions came back from a 19-point deficit to thrash the Hurricanes 44-29 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg and advance to next weekend’s final against the Crusaders in the City of Gold.
This was an epic performance by Johan Ackermann’s team, who gained some revenge for last year’s Super Rugby final defeat to the Wellington side, as well as winning their first match against the Kiwis since 2007.
Despite the tournament’s – rightly – criticised and convoluted format, the four best sides made the semi-finals and the two best will compete for the title.
The game was not without some nonsensical controversy coming out of New Zealand regarding Beauden Barrett’s 58th-minute yellow card and Malcolm Marx’s game levelling try, but more of that later.
The Hurricanes led 3-22 early in the match but were routed by a fierce Lions onslaught which saw them outscore their opponents 41-7 inside 42 minutes, after Jacques van Rooyen’s late first-half try.
The Lions become the second South African team in Super Rugby history to appear in back-to-back finals after the Bulls did so in 2009 and 2010 and boy, they deserve it.
Last year, the Lions – foolishly – rested their first team having already clinched a playoff berth. Ackermann decided to rest his regulars ahead of the quarterfinals, but they were beaten 34-22 by the Jaguares and ceded top spot in the standings to the Hurricanes.
The loss, ultimately, cost the South Africans the title as they travelled to New Zealand and were comprehensively beaten.
The Joburg team finished top of the table, ensuring home playoffs throughout the knockout rounds, but having not played a team from the Land of the Long White Cloud, few wondered if they had the substance to beat the tournament’s most exciting team.
Elton Jantjies, who was so poor against the Sharks, he was subbed off before the end of the thrilling encounter, missed 10 points with the boot that day and had a nightmare.
However, showing grit and quality, the Springbok flyhalf came through this stern test (not without the odd mishap) and led his team to victory.
He opened the scoring in the sixth minute with a straightforward penalty to give his side a 3-0 lead. But, that was a s good as it would get for the following 33 minutes.
The Hurricanes hit back immediately through TJ Perenara, who was outstanding. The No 9 saved two certain tries, scored one and led the yellow storm forward in all their attacks.
After another miscommunication between Ross Cronje and Jantjies, the scrumhalf chased a hacked ball to get his team’s opening score.
Four minutes later, Wes Goosen scored after a superb midfield move between Ngani Laumape and the sublime Beauden Barrett, who ghosted through the Lions’ defence and set the wing away.
Jordie Barrett extended the lead to 3-15 with a penalty before Ardie Savea gathered a loose ball on the halfway line and raced 50 metres to score under the posts.
The Lions were ragged, all three tries conceded were from silly mistakes and they looked to be out of the game on the half hour mark.
A minute before the break, the momentum swung when Van Rooyen barged over to give his team and the fans, some hope.
After the restart, Cronje and Malcolm Marx crossed to level the scores at 22-all as the home team roared back. It later transpired that Ackermann told his men to think of the score as 0-0 after the interval.
Cronje’s try – four minutes after the break – came from some quick ball and a dart around the fringe of the ruck with the scrumhalf stretching to score.
On 53 minutes, Marx’s try was awarded by assistant referee Rasta Rasivhenge after a beast of a driving maul.
He told fellow South African referee Jaco Peyper not to go upstairs because the ball was “definitely grounded” and so Peyper did not.
Rasivhenge can be seen to run around the disintegrating maul and has a good view of the hooker’s grounding because he is in front of the play and in a good position to see everything.
In a time when viewers and pundits complain about the long TMO checks for tries and foul play, this was a breath of fresh air; an official making an on-field call and having the courage of convictions to go with what he saw.
As the Lions’ confidence grew, so the Hurricanes wilted, making handling errors, kicking mistakes and their front row was beasted by Van Rooyen, Marx and Ruan Dreyer.
Franco Mostert continued being this season’s lineout wrecking machine, taking his tally of stolen lineouts from 14 to 16.
This is eight more than any other player in the Southern Hemisphere’s premier competition and 13 more than Hurricanes’ best from Vaea Fifita and Brad Shields (three each).
If the Lions thought they had weathered the storm, they were very wrong. Laumape scored to restore the Hurricanes’ lead after some slick handling by Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles – in his 100th match – and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
But, Beauden Barrett’s yellow card after his All Black midfield partner’s try, really turned the game in favour of the home team.
The standoff tracked back and tackled Ruan Combrinck after the wings jinking kick and chase saw him carry the ball into the Canes’ 22.
Barrett makes the tackle but interferes with the ball as he does so. His legs pull the ball onto the Hurricanes side, which so close to his try-line, was deemed cynical enough by Peyper.
Any cries of bias must be drowned out with derision; it was a soft yellow on reflection, but worthy in that it halted an attack near the goal-line, just as hands in the ruck, not rolling away or not releasing will lead to cards.
The home side scored 15 points while the Kiwi first five was in the bin. Jantjies kicked the resulting penalty before Harold Vorster gathered Kwagga Smith’s offload to make it 32-29.
Jordie Barrett missed a long range effort to tie the scores, but it did not matter.
Jaco Kriel’s chargers ramped up the intensity and ran in two more tries through Jantjies and, after Barrett returned, Smith, as the champion’s lungs burnt out in the dry winter Highveld air.
Final Score: Lions 44 (10) Hurricanes 29 (22)
Tries – Van Rooyen, Cronje, Marx, Vorster, Jantjies, Smith
Pen – Jantjies (2)
Con – Jantjies (4)
Tries – Perenara, Goosen, A. Savea, Laumape
Pen – J. Barrett
Con – J. Barrett (3)
Cards – B. Barrett (Yellow, 59th minute)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Ref 1: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Ref 2: Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Marius Jonker
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Albertus Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Francois de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Thomas Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Vaea Fifita, 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (captain), 1 Ben May.
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Reed Prinsep, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Otere Black, 23 Julian Savea