The Lions held off a spirited Jaguares fightback to win 40-23 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg.
Swys de Bruin’s side scored for superb tries and Elton Jantjies kicked 20 points in a commanding display at flyhalf, to give the Lions a home semi-final against the Waratahs, next weekend.
Trailing to two early Nicolas Sanchez penalties, three tries in 18 minutes from Ruan Combrinck, Harold Vorster and the omnipresent Malcolm Marx – along with a rare penalty by Jantjies – the Lions led 24-6.
The Jaguares fought back with two tries by Baptista Delguy and captain Pablo Matera, either side of another lesser-spotted Jantjies’ penalty, to bring the game to within four points at 27-23.
But the Lions, aided by home-field advantage, the experience of big playoff games, and the Highveld altitude, knocked the visitors out with an Andries Coetzee try and Jantjies’ boot.
Jantjies, who has played every minute of every Super Rugby match this season, had only kicked four penalties this campaign, but he added two more and a long-range drop-goal to see off the South Americans.
His cross-kick to Combrinck for the winger’s try only added to his impressive display.
The difference in key moments of this game was Marx, who has usurped Bismarck du Plessis as the best hooker in the game.
That Du Plessis played his last Test match in 2015 but was still considered the best player in his position until Marx’s arrival, is telling.
The 24-year-old is a revelation; he scored with a wonderful interception, racing 50 metres to score, which also took the sting out of the Jaguares’ tail.
But it was his work in the contact areas and the breakdown, where he won three vital turnovers in important attacking and defensive parts of the field, that highlights his importance to his team – and his greatness.
Cyle Brink and Marnus Schoeman, who replaced Brink, where excellent and caused the Jaguares problems with their fierce running and work rate at the breakdown and mauls.
Both these sides boast a perfect record at home in their clashes, which did not bode well for the Jaguares, who had lost their previous eight fixtures in the Republic.
Sanchez put his team six points up with two penalties inside six minutes, but the Lions fired back immediately when Combrink crashed over after gathering Jantjies’ cross-field kick.
The home team scored soon after when Vorster’s grubber was hacked by Aphiwe Dyanti.
Delguy got back to cover, but he could not gather, instead, the ball bounced away from the winger and into Vorster’s hands – a gift if ever there was one.
A Jantjies penalty and conversion sandwiched Marx’s try before the half-hour, put the hosts firmly in control of the clash.
Sanchez added his third penalty before the break as the visitors trailed 24-9 at halftime.
Lions controlled second-half despite Jaguares two early scores.
Mario Ledesma must have read his team the riot act during the interval because they came out and scored immediately after play resumed.
Delguy slipped some weak tackling and scored in the corner.
Jantjies added another penalty before Matera crashed through two defenders to reduce the deficit.
His angled run was superb and his celebration highlighted his frustration as he punched the ball into the stands.
Sanchez’s conversion was the last points for the tourists.
Coetzee’s try, nine minutes later, took the wind out of the opposition’s sails.
If penalties are rare in the City of Gold, drop-kicks are even rarer, so when Jantjies launched a huge field goal and it sailed through the uprights, you knew it was game over.
Another late penalty ate up the clock and made it an improbable three-score lead, unassailable.
Final score: Lions 40 (24) Jaguares 23 (9)
Tries – Combrinck, Vorster, Marx, Coetzee
Pen – Jantjies (3)
Con – Jantjies (4)
Drop – Jantjies
Tries – Delguy, Matera
Pen – Sanchez (3)
Con – Sanchez (2)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Ref 1: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Ref 2: Egon Seconds
TMO: Marius Jonker
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Francois Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques Van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Jaguares: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matias Orlando, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Matias Moroni, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Tomans Lezana, 6 Pablo Matera (captain), 5 Marcos Kremer, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Santiago Garcia Botta.
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 18 Santiago Medrano, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Tomas Lavanini, 21 Juan Manual Leguizamon, 22 Martin Landajo, 23 Sebastian Cancelliere.