Lions’ heart-stopper: It was ideal!

    2017-07-23 06:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Lions, if a dose of it had just snuck in, have been shocked out of any complacency on their continuing - phew, just - journey toward the Super Rugby title.

    Or put it this way: what is the likelihood of the Johannesburg franchise being as ragged, flustered and imprecise in the home semi-final against the Hurricanes next weekend as they were during the course of the dramatic, late-secured quarter-final triumph over the Sharks at Ellis Park on Saturday?

    Probably not a very good one, and that is something to bank in their favour despite the ‘Canes naturally shaping up as considerably more formidable on paper than the brave-hearts from Durban who so nearly registered an almighty upset before surrendering 23-21.

    With the Stormers coming up short at the quarter-final phase for the third time in as many years (and all at Newlands) by losing 17-11 to the Chiefs in a tight but generally disappointing tussle, justice has really prevailed for the last four, which will also see the Crusaders now host the Waikato outfit next Saturday in the other semi.

    It means the four teams with the most log points to show from the increasingly controversial ordinary-season format have booked their tickets for next weekend, and this is a development to please the purists, regardless of nationality.

    Also just about reflecting the balance of power this year is that the semis see three New Zealand teams and one SA outfit in the remaining mix.

    Whilst it will be little consolation to the Sharks, who may also feel referee Marius van der Westhuizen made some brutal calls against them at important times, plenty of South Africans from all the other regions will have breathed a sigh of relief that the Lions advance - they always did shape as the side from our shores in with best stab, and then some, at the trophy.

    It would have required a deep glug from the hip flask beforehand to submit with any fortitude that the Stormers, had they flown to sadly flood-ravaged Christchurch, or Sharks, by returning to the Cake Tin horror of their 41-0 knockout thumping from the Hurricanes last season, might have gone on to the overall glory instead.

    As it is, bookies may be slightly lengthening already the odds on the Lions going one better than their loss in the final of 2016, but the fact remains that Johan Ackermann’s charges are best equipped from our parts to bring the title to a South African home for the first time since the Bulls’ last triumph in 2010.

    The very fact that they survived the Sharks’ typically physical, bump-‘em-off-their-stride blitzkrieg is a testament to their pedigree, for all the flaws on display.

    That they work for each other, even in the depths of adversity, was also reflected in the way Springbok wing Ruan Combrinck fearlessly, determinedly stepped up to bang over the decisive penalty goal from well over 50 metres in the 77th minute to thwart the underdogs’ dreams.

    His vital cameo came with flyhalf and regular goal-kicker Elton Jantjies already sitting a little forlornly on the bench, following a rather wretched personal showing marked by mistakes in various respects - including unusually wayward kicking off the tee that did, remember, go quite some way to keeping the visitors interested right to the last whistle.

    Jantjies, an enigmatic fellow for some years in spite of his considerable gifts, faces a significant follow-up outing against the ‘Canes, as anything like a repeat of his jitters evidenced against the Sharks will get a whole lot of critics carping anew that he doesn’t quite cut it when the heat is turned up to most challenging levels.

    Certainly the renewed strides he made at Test level against France in June will be quickly forgotten by the harsher of onlookers if he bombs out against next weekend, although considering how Ellis Park and the Lions themselves are such treasured entities to him, it will also not surprise his army of devotees if he has a cracking outing against the Wellington visitors and defending champions.

    With due respect to stand-in skipper Jaco Kriel, the Lions do lack some elements of adhesiveness and tactical clarity when Warren Whiteley is confined to “civvies” at pitch-side - where he was on Saturday and will be for whatever’s left of their 2017 adventure.

    But the spirit that runs deep in their dressing room is still there, and not something to be under-estimated in the lead-up as next opponents the ‘Canes prepare for an arduous trip through time zones to the unforgiving Highveld.

    Not that the NZ side will be overawed in the slightest by jetting into the Big Smoke: last season they handed the otherwise consistently winning, polished Lions a 50-17 mid-campaign humbling in the very Jo’burg, before repeating the job 20-3 in the Wellington showpiece.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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