The Emirates Lions and the Crusaders will meet at 16h00 on Saturday in Johannesburg in a dream Vodacom Super Rugby final to be staged at Emirates Airlines Park, after the Highveld side scored a sensational 44-29 semi-final victory over the Hurricanes.
The Crusaders defeated the Chiefs 27-13 in their early Saturday morning (SA time) semi-final in Christchurch and next week’s final will see the two top-ranked teams fighting it out for the 2017 title.
Following an error-ridden first half-display, Jaco Kriel’s team were staring down the barrel of a possible crushing defeat with the Hurricanes 22-3 in the lead and in full control of proceedings with just minutes remaining in the opening half. However, they then produced a stunning fightback which saw them outscoring the Hurricanes by 41 points to 7 to clinch a sensational victory.
Afterwards, coach Johan Ackermann praised the fighting spirit of his team and said he kept his halftime message simple to the players.
“I asked the players to really lift their intensity and reset the whole scoreboard. It told them the score was 0-0 when we start the second half, so let’s just go and play 40 minutes of good rugby and whatever happens, we can live with that.
“They were really outstanding in the second half, giving a fighting display and the crowd was magnificent too,” explained Ackermann, who leaves for English side Gloucester at the end of the campaign.
TJ Perenara, Wes Goosen and Ardie Savea crossed the whitewash for the visitors, who punished the home side for their mistakes. However, the turning points in the match came when Kwagga Smith produced a superb cover tackle in the corner to stop a fourth try, and minutes later prop Jacques van Rooyen barged his way over for their first try to crucially cut the halftime deficit to 22-10.
Inspired by that spirited passage of play, the Emirates Lions produced a sensational second half and, with the passionate home crowd in full voice, they eventually added a further 34 points in the second half to defeat the defending champions.
Ross Cronje, Malcolm Marx, Harold Vorster, Elton Jantjies and Kwagga Smith each scored a try during that memorable, thrilling second-half display.
Jaco Kriel’s team also became the first South African side since the victorious Vodacom Bulls in 2009/10 to reach consecutive finals.
Ackermann’s men defeated the Crusaders 42-25 at their Johannesburg fortress in the 2016 quarter-finals, but the departing coach cautioned that will count for nothing next Saturday.
“The Crusaders are a top-quality side. They have a fantastic background and history and they are playing superb rugby at the moment, so looking back at what happened last year won’t help,” said Ackermann.
In the earlier semi-final on Saturday morning, the Crusaders clinched a 12th final appearance after they beat the Chiefs 27-13 in Christchurch following a 10-6 halftime lead.
The hosts scored four tries through Bryn Hall, Israel Dagg and Seta Tamanivalu (2) but it was their stirring defence that shut out a relentless Chiefs attack. Lock Brodie Retallick scored the Chiefs’ only try late in the match.
Emirates Lions 44, Hurricanes 29
Emirates Lions 44 – Tries: Jacques van Rooyen, Ross Cronje, Malcolm Marx, Harold Vorster, Elton Jantjies, Kwagga Smith; Conversions: Elton Jantjies (4); Penalties: Jantjies (2).
Hurricanes 29 – Tries: TJ Perenara, Wes Goosen, Ardie Savea, Ngani Laumape; Conversions: Jordie Barrett (2), Beauden Barrett; Penalty: Jordie Barrett.
Crusaders 27, Chiefs 13
Crusaders 27 – Tries: Seta Tamanivalu (2), Bryn Hall and Israel Dagg; Conversions: Richie Mounga (2); Penalty: Richie Mounga.
Chiefs 13 – Try: Brodie Retallick; Conversion: Damian McKenzie; Penalties: Damian McKenzie (2).