The Lions fought back from 14-0 down to beat the Waratahs 44-26 in Johannesburg and secure their spot in the Super Rugby final. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Lions have qualified for their third consecutive final. They will travel to Christchurch in the coming days and challenge the Crusaders – the form side across the 2018 Super Rugby season – for the title next Saturday.
The Crusaders will go into that contest on the back of a convincing 30-12 victory over the Hurricanes in the semi-finals. By contrast, the Lions will head to Christchurch knowing that a massive improvement is needed, especially in the department of defence.
The hosts appeared to lack urgency as well as accuracy in the opening quarter of the fixture at Ellis Park. Their forwards battled to make an impact at the set pieces, while their back three combined for some costly errors under the high ball.
The defence in the wider channels during this period was nothing short of shocking. Ned Hanigan and Israel Folau finished well for the visitors, while Bernard Foley added the extras to steer his side into an unlikely 14-0 lead.
The Lions continued to search for a spark. Kwagga Smith provided the breakthrough for the hosts when he bashed his way through the Waratahs defence and crossed the line.
The Lions reduced the deficit to two points following another piece of individual magic. Aphiwe Dyantyi identified the space behind the defence, and decided to chip and chase. The Springbok winger showed his skill and pace to collect the ball and race away for an important try.
The hosts started to grow in confidence. The Waratahs had done well to repel the Lions maul up to that point. In the 35th minute, however, the Lions marched 15m towards the left-hand corner, and Malcolm Marx was credited with the touchdown.
The Waratahs kept their hopes of a final appearance alive when Tom Robertson scored on the back of a sharply executed lineout move. It should be noted, however, that the Lions’ poor organisation on defence contributed to that score. At half-time, the scoreboard read 19-19 and the Waratahs were still in the contest.
As expected, the Waratahs started to show signs of fatigue in the early stages of the second stanza. They came into this semi-final following a taxing battle with the Highlanders and then a long journey from Sydney to Johannesburg.
After blowing a couple of scoring chances, the Lions finally edged their way into the lead via the boot of Elton Jantjies. And when reserve hooker Damien Fitzpatrick left the field after committing a cynical offence in the 57th minute, so too did the Waratahs’ chances of victory.
The Lions scored two tries while Fitzpatrick was in the sin bin. Marx crashed over after another successful maul, while Smith scored his second try in much the same manner as his first – shrugging off several weak tackle attempts out wide and then racing into the end zone.
Jantjies produced an excellent cross-kick that found Courtnall Skosan late in the game. The winger completed the score to ensure that the Lions bagged a big win in their final game of the season at Ellis Park.
Lions – Tries: Kwagga Smith (2), Aphiwe Dyantyi, Malcolm Marx (2), Courtnall Skosan. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (4). Penalties: Jantjies (2).
Waratahs – Tries: Ned Haningan, Israel Folau, Tom Robertson, Jake Gordon. Conversions: Bernard Foley (3).
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Lourens Erasmus, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Cam Clark, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images