Lions into 1st Super Rugby final, beat Highlanders 42-30
The Lions continued their remarkable rise to make their first Super Rugby final by running defending champion Highlanders off their feet in a 42-30 win on Saturday.
The first team to be relegated from Super Rugby four years ago, the Lions' revival is almost complete, with a decider next weekend in New Zealand against the Hurricanes, who made their second straight final by beating the Chiefs 25-9 earlier Saturday.
"I don't have words," said Lions fylhalf Elton Jantjies. "I can't describe it. It's been a long process."
The Lions scored five tries to four by the Highlanders, and the progress the Johannesburg-based team has made was underlined by the fact that its semifinal win wasn't a complete surprise. The Lions dumped out the record seven-time champion Crusaders in the quarterfinals and were convincing against the current title-holders on Saturday.
Tries from Jantjies and a 60-meter breakaway by center Rohan Janse van Rensburg helped the Lions open a 17-3 lead inside 30 minutes and they never looked back. They added three more tries in the second half as the visiting Highlanders flagged, weighed down by the travel, the high altitude at Johannesburg's Ellis Park, but also the Lions' unrelenting pressure in attack and defense.
The last two Highlanders tries — from impressive winger Waisake Naholo and replacement Joe Wheeler — came in the dying minutes and after the game was settled.
The turning point might have come in the 27th minute when Highlanders flanker Elliot Dixon dropped the ball when he was over the tryline.
"Early on in the game we had a couple of opportunities that were never nailed, but at the end of the day, the Lions played great," Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said.
Jantjies, who finished with 22 of the Lions' 42 points, went over in the 12th minute, taking a flat pass to score between the posts. Van Rensburg profited off a Highlanders mistake, scooping up a loose ball in Lions territory and running it all the way back.
Mixing strong set-piece play and physical defense with a willingness to attack from anywhere, Jantjies set off on a length-of-the field break five minutes into the second half and put wing Courtnall Skosan away down the left touchline.
The Highlanders scored their first try straight from the kickoff after Skosan's try, when Matt Faddes made his way home in the left corner after the Highlanders pinched possession from the Lions.
Jantjies set up captain Jaco Kriel for the Lions' fourth try with a cross-kick, and when replacement Lourens Erasmus scored the fifth in the 73rd, many of the Highlanders were clearly out of gas.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann pointed out that it was almost three years to the day since the Lions had to play a promotion-relegation playoff to win back their Super Rugby status.
The Hurricanes, who finished top of the regular-season standings ahead of the Lions, did provide the Lions with their lowest point this season — a 50-17 home defeat in the league stage.
"We'll give it our best shot," Ackermann said of the final. "There's no more I can ask of the guys."