Super Rugby: Comeback kings Lions to host Crusaders in final
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The Lions will have another shot at a first Super Rugby title and the Crusaders will get a chance at a record-extending eighth.
South Africa's Lions made their second straight final with an astonishing comeback on Saturday to beat defending champions the Hurricanes 44-29 after trailing 22-3.
Emboldened by prop Jacques van Rooyen's try just before halftime, the Lions scored six tries and 41 points to just seven points by the Hurricanes in their semifinal fightback in Johannesburg, avenging the loss at the Hurricanes in last year's final.
The Lions, once the first team ever to be relegated from Super Rugby, will now host the final next Saturday against the Crusaders, the tournament's most successful team.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders beat the Chiefs 27-13 in their all-New Zealand semifinal, helped by two tries by former Chiefs winger Seta Tamanivalu. The Crusaders reached the final for the 12th time.
The Chiefs had an abundance of possession but the Crusaders showed playoff temperament, seizing a handful of chances to score four tries that propelled them into the final for the first time since 2014.
The Crusaders have outstanding Super Rugby pedigree, but the Lions have a significant advantage in hosting the final at Ellis Park. The Crusaders will have to make the trek across to South Africa, and also deal with Johannesburg's high altitude, which wore down the Hurricanes. No team has ever won the Super Rugby final after having to travel to another country.
On Saturday, TJ Perenara, Wes Goosen and Ardie Savea scored tries for the Hurricanes to see them race 22-3 ahead after 30 minutes before the Lions got going.
"They say your opponents really bring out the best in you," said Lions captain Jaco Kriel. "We really had to dig deep in the second half and we did."
Despite the Lions' surge, the game was still in the balance with just over 20 minutes to go when the Hurricanes' Ngani Laumape scored a Super Rugby record-equaling 15th try this season.
A key moment came when the Hurricanes had All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett sin-binned for a deliberate infringement with the Lions on attack — a debatable decision by South African referee Jaco Pyper.
The Lions, 29-22 down when Barrett went to the bin, were 39-29 up when he returned.
The Lions put the result beyond doubt with their final try in the 74th, when replacement hooker Akker van der Merwe intercepted to halt a Hurricanes attack from deep inside their 22 and offloaded to flanker Kwagga Smith to score.
"They just kept going to the 80th minute and we couldn't stop their momentum," Hurricanes captain Dane Coles said.
In the first semifinal, Tamanivalu touched down twice in the second half against his former team, and scrumhalf Bryn Hall and fullback Israel Dagg also scored tries for the Crusaders.
All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick scored a late consolation try for the Chiefs, who had another try contentiously disallowed by the television match official at a crucial stage of the first half. The Chiefs were at odds for much of the match with referee Glenn Jackson, a former Chiefs flyhalf.
Against expectations, the Chiefs made most of the play in the first half, forcing the Crusaders into constant defense during which they had to make four times as many tackles as their opponents.
"The Chiefs had a lot of ball in the first half and the boys were definitely blowing and the legs were heavy," Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said. "But credit to our boys, they were hanging in tough out there through determination and grit."
After being under almost constant pressure in the first quarter, the Crusaders managed to break out at their first opportunity and score a try through Hall.
The match's most contentious moment came soon after when Samoa winger Tim Nanai-Williams seemed to score for the Chiefs. He dived on James Lowe's infield kick and skidded over the line for a try, awarded by Jackson.
Fullback Damian McKenzie was lining up the conversion when the television referee called a halt and instructed Jackson to disallow the try because Nanai-Williams had knocked on in the act of scoring.
Captain Aaron Cruden, playing his last Super Rugby match before quitting New Zealand rugby, said the TMO was mistaken and "it was a try any day of the week."
"Rugby's a momentum game and we thought we created a lot of chances, had momentum at times, but you've got to give credit to the Crusaders," Cruden said. "They're a great side."