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
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
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.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing