Lions stand alone against NZ supremacy in Super semis

 24 Jul 2016 - 15:06

Lions stand alone against NZ supremacy in Super semis
Ruan Combrinck of the Emirates Lions holds the ball during the Super Rugby quarter final clash between the Emirates Lions and the Crusaders at Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg on July 23, 2016. (AFP / Christian KOTZE)


By Nick Mulvenney

SYDNEY: Cellar dwellers for most of their current incarnation, South Africa's Lions were left standing as the only threat to New Zealand domination of Super Rugby after the weekend's first round of playoffs.

Such has been the strength of New Zealand rugby this season in the wake of the All Blacks' second successive World Cup triumph last October that many thought a sweep of all four semi-final spots was likely.

The Otago Highlanders, the reigning champions, duly held on in Canberra to defeat the ACT Brumbies 15-9 on Friday before the top-seeded Wellington Hurricanes thumped South Africa's Sharks 41-0 in New Zealand's capital on Saturday.

The Waikato Chiefs continued in a similar vein by hammering the Stormers 60-21 in the fourth quarter-final in Cape Town but only after the Lions had ensured there would be no sweep.

Since changing names from the Cats in 2006, the Johannesburg-based Lions have finished in the bottom three in Super Rugby in eight of nine seasons and did not feature at all in 2013 after being relegated in favour of the Kings.

Their opponents on Saturday at Ellis Park were the seven-times champions Canterbury Crusaders, a side packed with All Blacks looking to give departing coach Todd Blackadder his first title in his final season in charge.

Rather than being overawed, however, the Lions tore into the visitors from the start and were on the scoreboard within two minutes after winger Courtnall Skosan sidestepped New Zealand lock Luke Romano in midfield and raced to the line.

It got even better for the Lions five minutes later when centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg barged over from close range and the home side were up 12-0 as some in the crowd were still finding their seats.

The Crusaders have not won seven titles by letting their heads drop, however, and it was not until another two-try burst late in the second half that a famous 42-25 victory was assured.


There was plenty to like about the Lions performance -- the solidity of the scrum against an All Blacks front row, the defence and the energy of lock Franco Mostert -- but the strong start and finish were particularly pleasing for coach Johan Ackermann.

Ackermann had gambled by resting his first-choice side for their last regular season match against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, which they lost to forfeit the chance of topping the table and securing home advantage throughout the playoffs.

"We always knew the start was going to be important. We put them under pressure to play catch-up rugby," the former Springboks lock told reporters.

"The fact that we started well and ended well is justification around the desire to have fresh players."

The Chiefs' later win over the third-seeded Stormers ensured the Lions would welcome the Highlanders to the Highveld next Saturday, while the Hurricanes host their north island rivals in Wellington.

So despite Ackermann's gamble, the Lions can prepare at home for a first Super Rugby semi-final for a Johannesburg team since the Cats lost to the Sharks in 2001.

"We'll take it as it comes, it's going to be massive game," said inspirational skipper Warren Whiteley.

"All these teams in the final stages are quality so we'll just go back to the drawing board on Monday."