The Lions produced an irrepressible performance to clinch an emphatic 42-25 win over the Crusaders in Saturday’s quarter-final at Ellis Park. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
The Johannesburg-based franchise will now face the Highlanders in the second semi-final at the same venue next weekend, with the Hurricanes hosting the Chiefs, who thrashed the Stormers 60-21 at Newlands.
If there were any lingering doubts about the Lions’ championship credentials, they were extinguished on a unforgettable evening at Ellis Park.
The Lions led from as early as the second minute and never looked like relinquishing their advantage as they repeatedly struck with big plays at key moments to dump the seven-time Super Rugby champs out of the competition.
Despite the added pressure of a knockout match, the Lions again showed no fear as they stuck to their ambitious style of play and performed with the sort of intent and accuracy that has been a hallmark of their game all season.
Importantly, their defence matched their attack, and Elton Jantjies was outstanding at marshalling proceedings from the flyhalf position. Yet it was another immense all-round team effort that enabled the hosts to progress to a home semi-final.
Make no mistake, this Lions team is going to take some stopping. For much of this season, the Crusaders have looked like the form New Zealand side, but they simply had no answer to a Lions side that refused to be overawed by the occasion.
Last weekend, it appeared as if the Lions’ gamble to rest all their first-choice players for their final conference game had failed to pay off when they lost to the Jaguares and conceded top spot in the overall standings.
However, the reasoning behind the decision to give the Lions’ top players a week off would have been to ensure that they were rested and raring to go for their quarter-final clash.
In this context, and knowing that the Crusaders had journeyed west from New Zealand, the Lions would have been determined to make a roaring start to the encounter and immediately set the Saders on the back foot.
As it turned out, the Lions did just that as winger Courtnall Skosan broke away to score a superb try as early as the second minute, while impressive centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg dotted down soon after, when Saders lock Luke Romano was in the sin bin for committing a cynical maul infringement.
As illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, the opening quarter belonged to the home side. The Lions made 183m to 46, beat four defenders to none and completed 18 carries to 13.
Jantjies slotted a penalty in the 15th minute to extend the Lions’ advantage, but the Crusaders typically began to work their way into the clash as they finally won some territory and applied extended pressure in the right areas of the field.
Flyhalf Richie Mo'unga first drew three points back before centre Ryan Crotty scored in the 34th minute to suddenly cut the deficit to just five points after a period when the Lions had been forced to defend for a prolonged period of time.
It seemed as if the visitors were set to finish the half with ascendancy on their side, but in a big moment just before the break, the Lions opted to kick a penalty to the corner and Malcolm Marx scored from the back of a lineout drive with the final play of the stanza.
Elton Jantjies’s excellent conversion sent the hosts into a handy 12-point lead, and yet there was no doubt that the Crusaders had enjoyed the better of the exchanges during the second quarter, as indicated by the fact that they had the better of most of the stats at half-time.
Mo’unga duly drew three points back for the Crusaders soon after the restart, although this was cancelled out when Jantjies slotted a superb drop goal in the 54th minute.
Importantly, as the Lions headed into the final quarter when altitude was always expected to be in their favour, Jantjies slotted a 62nd-minute penalty to open up a 15-point buffer.
It didn’t last long, though, as the Lions failed to contend with a contestable kick and Crusaders replacement Mitchell Drummond gleefully latched on to the loose ball and went over to score under the posts to make it an eight-point ball game with 16 minutes left to play.
But the game was put to bed when Ruan Combrinck finished off another well-worked try in the 69th minute, while Ross Cronjé went over to score the Lions' fifth try in the 75th minute to add further gloss to a most resounding performance that emphatically reaffirmed the Lions' status as unequivocal title contenders.
Ben Volavola did score a late consolation try for the Saders, but this was ultimately another result to inscribe in the Lions' history books.
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 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt/Sylvian Mahuza.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett. Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Jimmy Tupou, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Kieron Fonotia.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images