Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It has the potential to be one of the classic Super Rugby showpieces … certainly one which will require a minimum of promotional spin to generate public interest.
If some of the more cash-conscious among Johannesburg rugby fans took the gamble of sacrificing attendance of Saturday’s semi against the Hurricanes (a slightly disappointing 28 000 did show up at Emirates Airline Park), on the assumption that the Lions would march onward to next weekend’s final, their eagerness to bag tickets for the big ‘un against the Crusaders ought to be in considerably less doubt.
It will be a surprise if the famous venue isn’t packed to the rafters, only making it an even more intimidating place, for the massively fitting swansong of Johan Ackermann as head coach of a franchise he has lifted from literally down-and-out status to amidst the now-indisputable cream of Super Rugby sides.
The Lions, who tripped at the final hurdle against the ‘Canes in Wellington last year – although they have avenged that by unseating them from that status via a 44-29 score-line from a pulsating contest on Saturday – will seldom get a better chance to etch their name on the modern Super Rugby trophy as they try to go one better by doing so at their beloved Highveld home.
Weight of history will be an enormous obstacle for their opponents from Canterbury, given the raw fact that no team has yet crossed the Indian Ocean either way to win a final.
That said, if any outfit was going to break that formidable duck, it would probably be a shrewd call to venture the ‘Saders, the market-leading, seven-time champions.
They are desperate to end a nine-year barren period since their last triumph in 2008, as evidenced by their own sprightly progress through ordinary season, in which they were only knocked off top spot overall by the Lions on the last day of that phase.
It is extremely pleasing, in a competition marred by its structural injustice in many respects, that probably the best two sides of 2017 have qualified for the final, even if this was a year where the Lions (who, it must be reminded, earned some quality NZ scalps last season) dodged New Zealand opponents until the semis juncture.
The Lions ended the pre-knockout phase with just one defeat from 15 matches (65 points), and ditto the Crusaders (63 points).
Although they were next best with 58 points, the Hurricanes suffered three losses along the way and Saturday’s brave semis surrender extends that tally to four.
Whilst proud pedigree will be a key ally for the travelling Crusaders – oh yes, they have a few pretty decent players too, don’t they? – the drawbacks associated with another journey through time zones at the end of a gruelling campaign aren’t the only reasons to suggest the Lions may well earn the backing, albeit narrowly, of the majority of bookies.
The dramatic, breathless semi-final only served as a sharp reminder of just how increasingly tough a nut the Lions are to crack at Emirates Airline Park, the same turf on which Francois Pienaar and company nominally won a virgin southern hemisphere first-class competition of the amateur era, the Super 10, in 1993 by pipping Auckland 20-17 in the showpiece.
In truth, the Lions have struggled to produce consistently polished showings in either the quarter-final (where they left it so late to quell the Sharks 23-21) or the semi, which saw the Hurricanes roar into a disturbing 22-3 lead by the half-hour mark.
But therein also lies the secret of their generally triumphant habit over the course of two seasons: the ever-rising degree of maturity and fortitude that helps them to recover from mid-match adversity and tactical/organisational error to turn things sweetly in their favour.
They were almost absurdly wild, woolly, error-prone and extravagant in their own territory during much of the first period against the ‘Canes … just about the last opponents you want to run that risk against, really.
But even before half-time “oranges”, Jaco Kriel’s troops also began to get their act spiritedly together, suddenly remembering that a bit of no-frills collective industry and mauling endeavour can be a ticket to success as much as the fancier stuff.
Loosehead prop Jacques van Rooyen’s barrelling charge over the line in the 39th minute would have done wonders in repairing belief in the broader ranks.
And come the second half, the Lions were little short of awesome, as they rumbled onto the front foot against tiring foes and produced a near-avalanche of five further tries.
Just by winning those memorable 40 minutes 34-7 in scoreboard terms, they sent out an automatic message to the Crusaders of how difficult they will be to subdue in the final, when they will surely also redouble their efforts to produce a more complete performance.
The Lions have now won three home knockout-phase matches in a row against New Zealand foes, if you throw in last year’s 42-25 victory over the very Crusaders (extra cause for psychological satisfaction?) in a quarter-final, and then 42-30 semis dismantling of the Highlanders.
That trophy truly does shine so seductively now in front of the Lions’ noses …
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