LIONS HEAD TO FINALS
The Lions produced the kind of comeback that had “champions” written all over it when they clawed their way back from 22-10 to win their Super Rugby semifinal against defending champions the Hurricanes at Ellis Park yesterday.
Johan Ackermann’s men changed tack halfway through the game to book themselves a place in their second successive final, against the Crusaders at home next week, after beating the Hurricanes – who beat them in last year’s final – for the first time since 2007.
In a performance that began with hints of a hangover from their last eight games against the Sharks, the Lions were impressive as they arrested the slide, thanks to a team effort in which a lot of good moves by a lot of players culminated in a famous win against a team they have beaten only once in 11 previous outings.
For all that team work, some players did put up their hands more than others, notably forwards Franco Mostert, Jacques van Rooyen, Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith, and backs Ross Cronjé, Elton Jantjies, Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck.
Mostert, Marx and Van Rooyen shone when the Lions were chasing the game, the hallmark of their contribution being their selflessness in availing themselves for yet another carry, with the former also a nuisance at the line-outs.
Smith grew as the game wore on, especially in the physical exchanges, and was rewarded with a try.
Cronjé’s game was a typical right-thing-at-the-righttime performance, while Jantjies missed only two of his eight kicks at goal and scored a try for a personal points haul of 19.
There may have been no tries or dramatic last-gasp penalties for Skosan and Combrinck, but the former was a force in defence and the latter’s howitzer boot came in handy in the tactical kicking battle.
The early exchanges of the game, one of those kickathons, gave the impression that the two freerunning teams in the competition were determined to tighten things up a little by playing finals rugby.
But it wasn’t long before the remnants of the Lions’ loose game in the quarterfinal against the Sharks conspired to hand the visitors the lead as early as the seventh minute of the game.
Lions fly half Jantjies was in the half-gap when his attempted offload failed to find halfback partner Cronjé, with the latter’s opposite number TJ Perenara grubbering the ball all the way to the try line to score.
The reason for that was the Lions’ sheer struggle at the time to gain yardage in collisions, which ended up with the ball-carrier feeling he needed to do more by wriggling over the advantage line, often leading to mistakes.
But the bigger issue was that the Lions had once again chosen the wrong game plan for the second game in succession, the folly this time being their attempt to out-New Zealand a Kiwi side, to coin a phrase, which meant the visitors were right at home playing basketball instead of rugby.
Yet three things saved proceedings for the hosts from that point onwards: scoring on both sides of half-time (through Van Rooyen and Cronjé); changing their tactics; and Canes fly half Beauden Barrett’s umpteenth yellow card for a professional foul.
Usually, scoring just before and after half-time is the preserve of New Zealand teams, but the Lions did just that to wrest back momentum.
Coming out of the half-time break, the Lions improved their accuracy in general, specifically at the breakdowns. They also capitalised on the travel-weary Canes’ tiredness at altitude by upping the tempo.
They were then given a leg up by Barrett’s sinbinning, which may well have been controversial as it wasn’t clear if the fly half knew what he was doing when he dragged the ball away from the ruck with his legs while rolling away after a tackle.
Be that as it may, it was a period that decided the game because the Lions scored 10 points from a Jantjies penalty for the offence and a converted Harold Vorster try.
HIGH RISE Lions’ Franco Mostert and Hurricanes’ Mark Abbott in action during a lineout in yesterday’s Super Rugby semifinal at Ellis Park Stadium. The Lions will host the Crusaders in the final at the same venue on Saturday