The Johannesburg-based Lions have restored pride in South African rugby upon roaring to a stunning 44-29 Super Rugby semi-final home triumph against the defending champion Hurricanes.
A repeat of last weekend’s performance in this Sunday’s final against the gutsy Crusaders would provide master coach Johan Ackermann the perfect farewell before he takes up his new role with Gloucester in England.
Having taken the Lions to last year’s final against the Hurricanes in Wellington, Ackermann has proved his worth, even if his team didn’t have to face one New Zealand team before last weekend’s semi.
Although it was a farcical situation, it should not detract from the merits of a team that has embraced Ackermann’s expansive game and has been duly rewarded.
While the Crusaders’ defence was magnificent in their 27-13 Super Rugby home semi-final triumph against the Chiefs last weekend, coach Scott Robertson should have been dismayed his team gained just 30 per cent possession.
They will need to do much better in this Sunday’s final in Johannesburg against a Lions team that showed a lethal bite in coming from 3-22 behind to beat the Hurricanes 44-29.
Who would have expected that after they just pipped the Sharks the previous week with a penalty just before full-time?
Certainly the Lions benefitted from home advantage, just as the Crusaders did after the Chiefs had to travel to Christchurch from their Cape Town clash against the Stormers.
Nevertheless, they played outstandingly well against a Hurricanes side that wilted badly in the second half when the Barrett brothers, Beauden and Jordie, lost their Midas touch and kicked too much second half possession away.
While the sin binning of Beauden was ridiculous, the Lions were well worth their win with their forwards dominating the set pieces.
That the Chiefs lost despite enjoying 70 per cent possession would have been cold comfort for Crusaders coach Scott Robertson in the knowledge his starting pack included seven All Blacks compared with the Chiefs’ three.
The best of them was tireless flanker Matt Todd who led a magnificent defence and had the better of tough Sam Cane.
With Ardie Savea easily the best of the Hurricanes in J’burg, Cane’s tenure as the test starter is at risk though he has never performed badly.
Just as Ackermann has done with the Lions, Robertson has done wonders improving the Crusaders’ defence and sharpening the attack.
In master-minding two Super Rugby crown triumphs, astute Dave Rennie has left his mark on the Chiefs before his departure for Glasgow.
Certainly replacing Rennie, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden and James Lowe in particular, will be a difficult task next year although Brad Wheeler and Damien McKenzie look set to make an exciting halves combination.
McKenzie and Cruden were both brave and brilliantly creative against the Crusaders and no one would deny outstanding Brodie Retallick the justice of scoring his team’s only try of the semi-final.
Meanwhile, having been warned after the Lions feasted on the Hurricanes, the Crusaders will be wary of a team that has much the same skill and dogged determination as themselves.
But they will also have an innate belief they can survive any storm in following the dictates of a coach who has given them the tools to do the job.
However, high altitude and home fans favour the Lions.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author