Lions coach Johan Ackermann said the try his team scored just before halftime was the turning point in their remarkable 44-29 win over the Hurricanes in their Super Rugby semifinal at Ellis Park on Saturday.
It gave them a clue how to play in the second half and eventually led to them overturning a 22-3 deficit.
After kicking a penalty to touch and troubling the Hurricanes with a couple of lineout drives a few moments before halftime, loosehead prop Jacques van Rooyen powered over the line, carrying a defender over with him.
The Lions were given hope at the end of a half in which they had been thoroughly outplayed.
“To score just before halftime was crucial, 22-10 sounds a lot better than 22-3. The forwards had been good in the set-piece, but on attack we needed to be more direct. We had to lift the intensity. Fortunately the guys were able to reset at halftime,” Ackermann said after the thrilling comeback.
“Even their coach [Chris Boyd] felt that was the turning point, keeping them out one or two times and then scoring. Then we upped the intensity and physicality in the second half.”
Both Ackermann and captain Jaco Kriel singled out the calmness of the team as being exceptional, while the coach also praised scrumhalf Ross Cronje for how he handled the obvious pressure the Hurricanes were putting on him at ruck time with some excellent decision-making.
“The decision-making, calmness and intensity were all much better in the second half. The belief is always there, and we just had to keep hitting the wall and eventually it will crack somewhere. Ross has been in brilliant form. His calmness and decision-making were especially good, plus he made a few snipes and his defence was good,” Ackermann said.
“It’s definitely the best feeling I’ve had for quite a while!” captain Kriel said.
“To see the character come out in the second half and how you can be inspired by your own players. The best thing was that we were able to be calm and we really believed that we would come through, we knew the momentum would turn.”
And how, with the Lions massacring the Hurricanes 41-7 in the last 45 minutes.
The defending champions truly just fell apart.
“We always know it’s difficult coming to Ellis Park. When your legs are tired and your throat is burning, you realise that they must be struggling even more. But you still have to dig deep to raise the intensity and the guys showed amazing character against a real quality side,” Kriel said.