SYDNEY, Australia, Jul 30 – South Africa’s Golden Lions will have a home advantage as they chase their first Super Rugby crown against seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders in the season decider after weekend victories.
The Lions stormed back from 22-3 down late in the first half to claim a 44-29 win over defending champions Wellington Hurricanes to keep the final in Johannesburg next weekend.
The Crusaders, who finished second behind the Lions in the regular season standings, will have to make the trip to South Africa after accounting for New Zealand rivals Waikato Chiefs 27-13 in the other semi-final in Christchurch.
It will be the fourth time a Super Rugby final has been staged in South Africa since 1996.
The Lions will be aiming to give their coach Johan Ackermann a fitting send-off after four rejuvenating years in charge by winning the final at Ellis Park over the benchmark Super Rugby club.
“That’s what I always hoped for, that the day I finished here would be in front of our home fans and on our own field,” said Ackermann, who is leaving to coach English side Gloucester.
“I’m so humbled. This journey has been so special over the last few years with a special bunch of men and they just proved it against the Hurricanes.”
The Lions win was mired in controversy with the disputed 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 was in the “sin bin”, the South Africans scored two tries and transformed a seven-point deficit into a 39-29 lead.
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 the comeback.
The 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.
The Lions beat the Crusaders 42-25 in the quarter-finals last season, but Ackermann said there was not much to be gained from his team looking back to that victory.
“The Crusaders are a quality side. Their background, their history. Looking at last year won’t help,” he said.
The Hurricanes were left bewildered how they were going home empty-handed after being so dominant in the first half.
“It was one of those ones where you look back and go how did we lose that one?” captain Dane Coles said.
“There was definitely that feeling because we were so dominant in that first half and we gave ourselves a chance right up until TJ Perenara threw that intercept try. That was a bit of a kick in the guts.”
Meanwhile, the magical touch of Richie Mo’unga and a stout defence put the Crusaders into another Super Rugby final against the Chiefs.
With the Crusaders up only 10-6 at half-time and starved of possession, the game turned 10 minutes into the second half when Chiefs wing James Lowe attempted a clearing kick while scrambling on defence.
Mo’unga came from behind to knock the ball into the hands of the oncoming Israel Dagg, who dived across the line to open up the Crusaders’ lead and from there they never looked back.
Seta Tamanivalu added two more tries before Brodie Retallick scored a consolation five-pointer for the Chiefs at the end.