The Lions smashed the Highlanders 42-30 at Ellis Park on Saturday to set up a Super Rugby final showdown with the Hurricanes. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Put this result down to the power of the Lions forwards as well as the sharp execution of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies. The Lions forwards destroyed the top-rated scrum in the competition, and manhandled their Highlanders counterparts at the gainline. Jantjies was in sublime touch for the hosts, creating several scoring chances and finishing the match with an individual tally of 22 points.
The upshot is that the Lions will advance to the Super Rugby final in Wellington next Saturday. While the odds are against them winning a final in New Zealand, they will have the opportunity to claim their first-ever Super Rugby title.
The Highlanders will return to New Zealand defeated and deflated. They were forced to travel across the Indian Ocean for this semi-final. They were always going to be the underdogs in this scenario. And yet, they should be disappointed with their lack of physicality and precision, as well as the fact that the result sees them surrendering their title.
The Highlanders battled to live with the Lions at the gainline in the first stanza. The hosts were relentless on attack. They were equally aggressive and organised on defence. In fact, it was the press of the Lions defence that often forced the Highlanders to make the mistake and surrender possession.
The Lions played smart rugby in the first stanza. They attacked the Highlanders at the scrums, despite the New Zealanders' reputation at this set piece. They looked to play the game in the right areas, and when the opportunity to shoot for goal arrived, Jantjies made it count. Overall, the Springbok flyhalf goaled seven of his eight attempts.
But it was how the Lions performed beyond the first phase that allowed them to claim such a convincing victory. The Highlanders defence battled to contain the Lions forwards at the gainline, and De Klerk also enjoyed much attacking success when he opted to break from the base. The scrumhalf took some excellent options, and the speed of his passing allowed the hosts to compete at a breakneck pace.
The Highlanders battled to cope. They held out initially, but were eventually breached in the 12th minute when Jantjies ran a great angle and scored under the posts. In the 26th minute, the Lions created a scoring chance through their aggressive defence. The linespeed of the hosts forced the Highlanders to cough up possession, and Rohan Janse van Rensburg showed good speed and strength to score from there.
The Highlanders were chasing the game from an early stage. Their cause wasn't helped when the Lions added a third try in the 47th minute. Jantjies had read play superbly, taking the decision to run from his own 22m area and launch a counterattack down the left-hand touchline. The flyhalf found Courtnall Skosan in support, who accepted the pass before racing into the end zone.
The visitors continued to compete, and had some success at the breakdowns as well as in the air. All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo was especially accurate in the latter department, and caused the Lions back three a lot of problems with his well-timed leaps for the ball.
That said, the Lions never let up. They continued to hammer into the collisions, and continued to put the ball behind the Highlanders defence.
Jantjies showed the extent of his skills when he produced a pinpoint cross-kick in the 56th minute. Captain Jaco Kriel timed his run perfectly, and claimed the catch before beating a couple of cover defenders to the tryline. Jantjies nailed the conversion from the touchline, and at 35-11, the result was in the bag.
The Highlanders scored a couple of tries in the dying stages, but these efforts only served to add some respectability to the scoreline. Even so, they finished 12 points behind the Lions.
Lions – Tries: Elton Jantjies, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnall Skosan, Jaco Kriel, Lourens Erasmus. Conversions: Jantjies (4). Penalties: Jantjies (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Matt Faddes, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo, Joe Wheeler. Conversions: Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Steph de Witt, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Marty Banks.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images