It’s been an almost perfect 18 months for Emirates Lions rugby fans, who have seen a team that was written off from Super Rugby as recently as 2013 grow to become back-to-back finalists. Perhaps the only blight came last year, when they threw away a crucial game against the Jaguares late on in the competition and lost the final 20-3 to the Hurricanes.
Their fans could have been forgiven for fearing that their side had adopted a habit that has been synonymous with the Stormers and Sharks in recent years – choking at crucial moments. However, today’s 44-29 semi-final victory over the Hurricanes showed that the Johannesburg side has grown mentally since last year.
The Lions have played some superb rugby all season, topping the overall log after losing only one game. However, arguably the first defining moment of their season came when Ruan Combrinck nailed a long-range penalty kick to snatch a scrappy quarter-final victory against the Sharks.
The hallmark of a great team in sport is a side that can win without playing well – and perhaps we will look back in years to come and say that the win over Robert du Preez’s side was crucial.
In their semi-final against the Hurricanes, the Lions went 22-3 down. Over the years, South African sides have often crumbled when up against a scoreline like that. However, Johan Ackermann’s team proved that quitting was not in their vocabulary – snatching a 44-29 win against the most successful side in the last three years of Super Rugby.
There is certainly no guarantee that the Lions will win against the Crusaders, who are quality opponents and have also lost one game all season. However, if they do lose, it is highly unlikely that it will be due to a weak mentality.
This Lions side has shown itself not only to be skilful, but also remarkably resilient. If they weren’t, they would have got past neither the Hurricanes nor the Sharks.
Home ground advantage is sure to help at Emirates Airline Park, as it doubtlessly did in the last two Super Rugby games there. It’s been seven years since the Super Rugby title last came to South Africa – but this side is a fundamentally different beast to others the country has had representing them in the final since then.
So many times, the Lions have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat – including when they knuckled down after losing to the Jaguares early on in the season – gaining an incredibly unlikely spot on top of the table.
As the most successful team in Super Rugby history, the Crusaders, visit Johannesburg; one can’t help but wonder if a first ever title for the Lions is all but written in the stars.