Lloyd Burnard - Ellis Park
Johannesburg - The Lions wanted it so badly, and they kept pushing with 14 men until the final whistle, but in the end their fairy tale was not to be as they were beaten 25-17 by the Crusaders in Saturday's Super Rugby final.
It is the first time that the Crusaders have won the tournament since 2008 and is also the first time that a side has won a Super Rugby title having crossed the Indian ocean.
What was an already difficult challenge became almost impossible for the Lions when Kwagga Smith was shown a straight red card after he went crashing into Crusaders fullback David Havili just before half time.
It left the Lions 15-3 down and a man short at the break, and though they threatened to, they were not able to deliver the miraculous comeback that got them past the Hurricanes in the semi-final.
The Lions never stopped believing, but it was always going to be a big ask with a man down.
They had started well with an early spell of possession and dominance, setting up a rolling maul inside the Crusaders 22m area.
It came to nothing, but soon the hosts were back on the attack only for flyhalf Elton Jantjies to horribly shank a drop goal attempt.
Still the Lions attacked, but when Jantjies was dumped on his back by a thumping Kieran Read tackle, the Crusaders won turnover ball and countered immediately.
Fijian-born wing Seta Tamanivalu galloped down the left touchline unchallenged to score his side's first try completely against the run of play.
Richie Mo'unga added the extras, and the visitors were 7-0 up.
While their first try came as a result of solid defence, the Crusaders' second showed their attacking pedigree.
No 12 Ryan Crotty made the initial break and his offload to hooker Codie Taylor was class. The Lions were stretched, and the Crusaders went left where centre Jack Goodhue scored in the corner.
With the conversion going wide, the Lions were 12-0 down and in trouble. It would take another comeback, and the only good news was that they still had plenty of time.
It nearly got worse when seriously slick hands from Havili set up Israel Dagg in the right corner before a try-saving tackle from Andries Coetzee kept him out.
The Lions were struggling to look after the ball, but they got a penalty out of referee Jaco Peyper just inside their half on 27 minutes.
Jantjies knew the second he hit it that it was over, and Ellis Park roared as the scoreboard read 12-3.
Then, having been awarded another kickable penalty, the Lions opted instead to set up an attacking lineout.
The rolling maul, so effective against the Hurricanes in the semi-final, was stopped dead in its tracks. The Lions bashed away for a few phases, but the Crusaders defence held firm once again and they eventually won a penalty on the ground.
For the first time of many, Ellis Park went quiet.
Then, with just a couple of minutes to go in the half, tragedy struck for the Lions when Smith was shown a straight red.
The energetic loose forward had chased after a big up-and-under, and he was traveling at high speed looking to get to the ball first.
He was never going to win the race. Havili jumped into the air to take the ball, and Smith could not put on the brakes in time. He want clattering into the 'Saders fullback, sending him toppling over onto his neck, and Peyper had little choice given how strict World Rugby has become in such incidents.
It was near-impossible for the Lions after that, and when Mo'unga knocked over his second penalty after the hooter, the Lions were 15-3 and a man down, needing a miracle to save them in the second half.
The hosts needed a strong start in the second half, but instead they were even further behind when Read went bashing over under the posts.
At 22-3 down, there was surely no way back for Ackermann's men.
The crowd continued to take their frustrations out on Peyper, but with a man down the Lions were always going to be stretched.
Mo'unga added another penalty to make it 25-3, and the Lions needed four scores in 27 minutes.
They had a glimmer of hope on 64 minutes when, after a long period of relentless attack, Malcolm Marx went over in the corner.
Jantjies slotted it from the left touchline, and at 25-10 the Lions had some momentum.
They attacked with a freedom that had been absent from their first half showing, and got their second try through substitute prop Corne Fourie. That made it 25-17 with less than 10 to play, and at that stage anything was possible.
If the game had lasted another 10 minutes, who knows what would have happened, but the Lions were out of time.
Johan Ackermann, having guided the Lions to two straight Super Rugby finals, will now leave the franchise and head to Gloucester.
Lions 17 (3)
Tries: Malcolm Marx, Corne Fourie
Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2)
Crusaders 25 (15)
Tries: Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, Kieran Read
Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2)
Penalties: Mo'unga (2)
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 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Substitutes: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza
15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Substitutes: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge