If you took a look at the first-half performance of the Lions against the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby semi-final this past weekend, even the most die-hard fan of the Joburg franchise would’ve been burying his head in his hands, realising he had reserved his next Saturday afternoon for nothing, and the Hurricanes were on their way to Christchurch. However, the second half proved that the Lions aren’t only a great Super Rugby team, but a powerful force in World Rugby.
For two seasons, the Lions have proved to be dominant against New Zealand opposition in the final stages of the tournament. Both in 2016 and 2017, the Lions didn’t get too many opportunities to play against their Kiwi counterparts during the round robin stage, making doubters question how good they actually were/are, but in play-offs, Johan Ackermann’s side always thrived, convincingly downing the Crusaders 44-29 last year (despite falling to the Hurricanes in Wellington), and blitzing the defending champions this past weekend; both at Ellis Park, where the final will be played.
After beating the ‘Canes, the Lions will get a repeat chance to measure off their ability against the Crusaders in this weekend’s conclusion to the competition, and while it’s hard not to feel some relief that this convoluted tournament is coming to an end, it is satisfying to know that the best two sides this season made it to the end.
And the Lions will be in the best position to clinch the decider, and for a multitude of reasons. The Lions have had their fair-share of hurdles to overcome, the Crusaders, on the other hand, have not. The SA side has endured injuries to key players, a tough yet successful tour, escaping the stranglehold of the Sharks in the quarter-final, and valiantly overcoming the Hurricanes in the semis with their impressive second-half resurgence. The Crusaders have had “tougher” opposition in playing more of their own Kiwi sides this year, but, as good as they are, the 7-time champions haven’t been broken and had to rebuild as the Lions have – and this is what makes championship-winning sides.
Add in the fact that the Lions, for lack of better words, completely blew it last year by sending a weaker side to Argentina in the final game of the normal season, resulting in a loss and therefore an away final which they returned from defeated. Johan Ackermann and his team know this is their opportunity to grab that elusive trophy and add an extra oomph to South Africa’s mental game ahead of the Rugby Championship, and it’s extremely unlikely that the Lions will make the same mistake again.