Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The marvellously watchable Lions, wowing people once more at the expense of the Highlanders on Saturday, already have a very strong case now for claiming to be the best side in the franchise’s history over a single season.
But they will also catapult automatically to one of the most iconic outfits ever in modern-era Vodacom Super Rugby if they somehow manage to beat the Hurricanes in faraway Wellington in next Saturday’s final.
That would not simply be because they were widely deemed little more than long shots for the grand spoils in 2016 and have instead illuminated the competition with their passion, skill and unbudging spirit of adventure en route to the showpiece.
It would also be down to the fact that they’d defied the gigantic obstacle of crossing the Indian Ocean at short notice to seize the trophy.
This has never happened before, remember, and the team taking the debilitating long-haul flight a few days out from the final also usually succumbs by a wince-inducing margin.
Here is the evidence: Auckland Blues 45 Sharks 21 (1996), Brumbies 30 Natal 6 (2001), Bulls 61 Chiefs 17 (2009), Chiefs 37 Sharks 6 (2012).
Those are the stats Johan Ackermann’s gallant, ambitious charges will have to fly in the face of as they prepare for the challenge of the ‘Canes – another team yet to claim the title, so we’re guaranteed a first-time winner -- at their often blustery “Cake Tin”.
They’ll be the underdogs, and won’t mind that too much.
Win or lose, though, long-suffering supporters of the Lions have every reason to feel this is the team which has done them the most proud since the “professional” launch of Super Rugby, if you like, in 1996.
Granted, we should not forget that way back in 1993, in one of their former incarnations as Transvaal, the fledgling, naive Super 10 competition was won (after beating Auckland 20-17 in the Ellis Park final) by a team containing eight members of the starting line-up who would also go on to be maiden Springbok World Cup winners two years later – Francois Pienaar, Kobus Wiese, Hannes Strydom, Balie Swart, Japie Mulder, Hennie le Roux, Johan Roux and Pieter Hendriks.
But Super Rugby is really considered to have begun in all seriousness in 1996, and only twice since then have sides with primarily Johannesburg rooting, the Golden Cats of 2000 and 2001, got previously as far as the semi-finals (but no further, mind).
That squad was also not completely the pride and joy of the Big Smoke; they were in an uncomfortable temporary alliance with Free State at the time and split their home matches between Jo’burg and Bloemfontein; unified spectator enthusiasm was an elusive phenomenon and “divorce” inevitable.
Still, no such lofty heights were achieved down Doornfontein way in a deflating further decade and a half, with the rebranded Lions experiencing more years than not when they were much closer to basement-dwelling than title-aspirant material.
Ackermann’s life-restoring class of 2016 are Gauteng-housed through and through, and doing so much to restore respect and interest in rugby in the region.
Saturday’s 42-30 semi-final dismantling of the defending champions from Dunedin, an attractive spectacle played in glorious afternoon sunshine, saw the Lions stick resolutely to their enterprising principles – right down to several exit plays that were agonisingly risky but often saw them make enormous territorial gains and in one or two cases even led to sizzling tries.
Some might argue that “dismantling” sounds a tad unfair or disrespectful to the visitors, considering that there were only 12 points in it on the final scoreboard and the try count was a tight 5-4 in favour of the Lions.
But connoisseurs will know this one was really in the bag just before the third quarter had run its course, as Jaco Kriel and company had opened up a gaping 35-11 advantage and coach Ackermann, hugely mindful of the coming trek through time-zones, raided his bench with interest as several of his prize soldiers were hastily cotton-wooled for the final and their structure and organisation became just a little ragged.
Ben Smith, co-captain of the Highlanders, was magnanimous afterwards in acknowledging that the Lions were deserved, clear-cut winners.
It was the second time this season that the South African leading lights in the competition have set things right after losing to New Zealand foes in the ordinary-season phase: last weekend they downed the Crusaders in a quarter-final (42-25) after a 43-37 defeat, and this latest up-tempo victory made amends for the 34-15 loss in Dunedin in March.
So apart from the much more important salaams that would come with actually winning the final abroad, the Lions would also be completing a thoroughly laudable redemptive hat-trick in 2016 if they down the Hurricanes – it was they who handed them their worst setback of the campaign when they raided Emirates Airline Park for a 50-17 result on April 30 (seven tries to three).
Since then, however, the Lions have added enormous doses of maturity to their appealing make-up, and if you wanted evidence, look no further than the utterly imperious way Elton Jantjies ran the show at flyhalf in the semi – this must count as one of the games of his not always untroubled life.
The left-footed pivot, who turns 26 on Monday, was pure magic in every department, including a previously unseen, near-demonic commitment to defence plus some eye-opening bursts of real pace on the break.
“Incredible … the spark … the general … he made critical decisions,” were just some of the tributes from the Springbok captain of the 2012-15 era and now SuperSport pundit, Jean de Villiers.
Records remind that the Lions have it all to do in Wellington. But don’t place your money on the ‘Canes, if you feel obliged to on those grounds, with any great confidence, either …
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