The Lions booked their place in the Super Rugby final next Saturday against the Hurricanes in Wellington with a demanding 42-30 win over defending champions the Highlanders at a rousy Ellis Park on Saturday.
Fittingly it’s No 1 and No 2 on the log who will play in the final, while the Lions are faced with the travel burden, having to leave SA shores on Sunday.
The Lions, who led 17-6 at the break, scored five tries to four as they bossed the Highlanders at the contact points and never once trailed in the game.
While the Highlanders also threatened on attack, it was the Lions who converted their opportunities just better on the day, while their defence stood strong in the vital moments of the game and only really slipped at the end when a host of replacements were sent on.
But once the Lions pushed the score up to 35-11 in the 15 minutes after half-time there was no real doubt who would fly over to Wellington to contest the final.
After a fierce opening spell where the Lions had to pull out all the stops it was Lions flyhalf Jantjies who scored the first points of the game when he crashed over underneath the posts after relentless Lions pressure to score the opening try in the seventh minute after he converted his own try for a 7-0 lead.
Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga responded with the Highlanders’ first points through a penalty in the 18th minute after the Lions were penalised at the breakdown to reduce matters for the Lions to 7-3, but Jantjies increased the lead to 10-3 just three minutes later with a penalty after the Highlanders backline were caught off-side.
The 51, 000 crowd erupted when centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg scored the Lions’ second try in the 25th minute, pouncing on a loose ball in the Highlanders backline, for a 17-3 lead after Jantjies landed the conversion.
Sopoaga then missed a penalty in the 31st minute before landing one in the 40th to trail by 17-6 at the break.
The Highlanders, however, squandered a golden opportunity when flanker Elliot Dixon lost the ball when he was already over the tryline.
Just after half-time, wing Courtnall Skosan scored a spectacular long-distance try after Jantjies ripped open the Highlanders’ defence and created the space for the flying winger and a Lions lead of 25-6 resulted in the 45th minute after Jantjies pulled the conversion wide.
The visitors eventually scored their opening try in the 49th minute through centre Matt Faddes after they built up numerous phases to reduce matters to 25-11 after Sopoaga went wide with the conversion, but Jantjies landed another penalty in the 50th minute to increase the score once more to 28-11.
A killer blow was struck by the Lions in the 55th minute when Jantjies landed a cross-kick for Skosan to collect and the off-load to a flying captain Jaco Kriel to score the Lions’ fourth try for a decisive 35-11 lead after Jantjies landed the tough conversion.
Sapoaga scored the visitors’ second try in the 66th minute but failed with the conversion to leave the Highlanders still behind 35-16 with less than 15 minutes left to play in the match.
In the 74th minute, replacement lock Lourens Erasmus scored the fifth try after a clever chip to see the score grow to 42-16, before Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo scored a consolation try four minutes from time which saw the score change to 42-23.
A late Highlanders score to replacement lock Joe Wheeler saw them scoring their fifth try to surrender their title with grace, but they still lost the game by a comfortable 12 points.