The Lions advanced to this year’s Super Rugby Final after claiming a deserved 42-30 victory over the Highlanders in Johannesburg on Saturday.
In a memorable all-round performance, in which they stayed true to their attacking roots, the Lions dominated for large periods and outscored the Highlanders by five tries to four with Elton Jantjies leading the way with a 22-point haul thanks to a try, four conversions and three penalties.
The result brings to an end the Highlanders’ reign as champions and the Super Rugby tournament will have new winners as the Lions and their opponents in next weekend’s final, the Hurricanes, haven’t won the competition yet.
The Lions fast paced style of play proved too much for the Highlanders who made several unforced errors which cost them victory.
The homeside scored two unanswered tries in the opening half but turned on the style after the interval with Jantjies’ playmaking skills particularly impressive as they continued to attack from all areas of the field.
The home side opened the scoring as early as the 11th minute when Jantjies went over under the posts, after Malcolm Marx was stopped five metres short of the try-line in the build-up.
Jantjies brushed himself off to slot the conversion before Lima Sopoaga opened the Highlanders’ account via a penalty in the 18th minute but Jantjies restored parity with a three-pointer from the kicking tee two minutes later.
Five minutes later, Rohan Janse van Rensburg pounced on a loose pass from Lima Sopoaga on the Lions’ 10-metre line and showed a superb turn of speed as he outpaced the cover defence before dotting down under the posts.
Jantjies added the extras which meant the home side led 17-3 but despite trailing by 14 points, the Highlanders didn’t panic and upped the ante on attack.
Two minutes later they had a chance to narrow the gap when Elliot Dixon went over the whitewash, after running on to a brilliant offload from Malakai Fekitoa, but he lost the ball while diving over the try-line.
The Highlanders had a chance to reduce the deficit five minutes later when Sopoaga lined up a shot at goal, but his effort was wide of the mark.
Sopoaga would make up for that miss with a penalty on the stroke of half-time which meant the Lions led 17-6 as the teams changed sides.
Jantjies extended his side's lead when he added another penalty, four minutes into the second half and a minute later he caught the visitors by surprise when he made a telling break from deep inside his 22. He still had work to do but did well to draw in Waisake Naholo before offloading to Courtnal Skosan turned on the afterburners before crossing for his side's third try.
From the restart, Franco Mostert fumbled the ball and Greg Pleasants-Tate intercepted before going on a strong run before he was brought down inside the Lions' 22.
The ball was recycled quickly and Fekitoa threw a long pass to Matt Faddes who crossed over in the left-hand corner but Sopoaga missed the conversion which meant the Lions were now leading 25-11.
Jantjies added another penalty in the 52nd minute and three minutes later he launched a crossfield kick which Jaco Kriel gathered before shrugging off a couple of defenders on his way over the try-line.
With the game in the bag, the Lions rung the changes but the Highlanders didn't surrender and struck back with a Lima Sopoaga try but that effort was cancelled out by Lourens Erasmus, who dived over after gathering a pass from Mostert close to the Highlanders whitewash.
The closing stages was a frantic affair and the Highlanders added some respectability to the score thanks to late tries from Naholo and Joe Wheeler.
Tries: Jantjies, Janse van Rensburg, Skosan, Kriel, Erasmus
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 3
Tries: Faddes, Sopoaga, Naholo, Wheeler
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Pens: Sopoaga 2
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf De Klerk, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Steph de Witt, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Marty Banks
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keefe, AJ Jacobs
TMO: Shaun Veldsman