A magnificent comeback swept the Lions to the Super Rugby final with a 44-29 triumph over title-holders the Hurricanes in Johannesburg Saturday.
The Lions host another New Zealand outfit, record seven-time champions Crusaders, in the final next Saturday, seeking a first success in the competition.
But some gloss was taken off the victory by the controversial yellow-carding of Hurricanes fly-half and 2016 Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett at a key stage of the semi-final.
While All Blacks playmaker Barrett sat in the “sin bin”, the South Africans scored two tries and transformed a seven-point deficit into a 39-29 lead at Ellis Park stadium.
South African referee Jaco Peyper judged that after making a tackle, Barrett correctly rolled away, but illegally dragged the ball with him.
However, big-screen replays suggested Barrett accidentally pulled the ball away and was not guilty of a cynical foul.
By the time Barrett returned, the defending champions were on the back foot and an intercept try by Lions flanker Kwagga Smith completed a particularly pleasing success.
Lions lost the 2016 final to Hurricanes in Wellington, their 10th defeat by the New Zealand outfit in 11 meetings, including a 50-17 drubbing at Ellis Park last season.
“I am the proud leader of a wise and fearless team,” boasted Lions skipper and flanker Jaco Kriel, deputising for injured Warren Whiteley, who will also miss the final.
Hurricanes skipper and hooker Dane Coles, making his 100th Super Rugby appearance, admitted that the Lions were impossible to stop in the second half.
“They developed momentum that blew us away and the better team won. The Lions have improved greatly since losing to us in the final last year,” said the All Black.
Hurricanes built the 22-10 half-time advantage through clinical punishment of wayward passes as the Lions committed unforced errors under pressure.
Tries just before and after half-time from prop Jacques van Rooyen and man-of-the-match award winner and scrum-half Ross Cronje turned the tide.
As the stamina-sapping effects of the 1750-metre gradually told on the defending champions, defence gaps appeared and the Lions took full advantage.
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Tries: van Rooyen, Cronje, Marx, Vorster, Jantjies, Smith
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 2
Tries: Perenara, Goosen, Savea, Laumape
Cons: Jordie Barrett 2, Beauden Barrett.
Pens: Jordie Barrett
Yellow card: Hurricanes: Beauden Barrett (58 minutes)