Lions just too good for Crusaders
MATCH REPORT: The Lions put on display a sublime attacking performance to outplay the Crusaders and win 42-25 - advancing to the Super Rugby semifinals for the first time in their history.
The Lions outscored the Crusaders by five tries to two, but the visitors scored a consolation try right on the full-time hooter.
There were two blitzkrieg periods that set up the win for the home team - the first 10 minutes and five minutes round about the 70-minute mark.
Relegated in 2013, the Johannesburg outfit have transformed from also-rans to title contenders within three seasons under coach and former Springbok lock Johan Ackermann.
A great start saw the hosts put 12 points on the scoreboard within eight minutes and a late first-half try from hooker Malcolm Marx earned a 22-10 advantage at the break.
Substitute scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond scored a converted try 17 minutes from time for record seven-time champions Crusaders to leave just eight points between the sides at Ellis Park stadium.
But the South Africans finished strongly with wing Ruan Combrinck and substitute scrumhalf Ross Cronje dotting down to seal a last-four place.
"We started and finished fantastically," said Lions skipper and No.8 Warren Whiteley, back in action after a three-week shoulder injury lay-off.
"I am so proud of the boys and also our supporters - never underestimate the impact they have on matches at Ellis Park.
"When we lost at home to Crusaders this season, we conceded early points and spent the rest of the match playing catch-up.
"In this match we reversed the situation, scoring two early tries, and that was crucial to us reaching the semifinals.".
Crusaders workhorse No.8 and skipper Kieran Read dismissed the 1,755-metre altitude and a 20-hour flight from Auckland as excuses for losing.
"We gave our all but it was just not enough," he said.
"The Lions made a flying start and we were always playing catch-up.
"I felt we had a chance of snatching a victory until Ruan [Combrinck] scored 10 minutes from time.
"This is a pretty young team and the future is bright," he said of a franchise whose last Super Rugby title came eight seasons ago.
It did not help Crusaders that lock Luke Romano was yellow-carded after six minutes with the South Africans scoring 10 points while he was sin-binned.
Wing Courtnall Skosan, centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Marx, Combrinck and Cronje scored a try each for the Lions.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies missed two shots at goal, but contributed 17 points from four conversions, two penalties and a drop-goal.
Centre Ryan Crotty, Drummond and replacement back Ben Volavola crossed the try-line for Crusaders and fly-half Richie Mo'unga kicked two conversions and two penalties.
Man of the match: Johnny McNicholl caused all kinds of problems to the Lions' defensive lines, while Matt Todd and Jordan Taufua were monstrous all over the park. The Crusaders' best player was All Black fullback Israel Dagg - a rock in the last line of defence and some monstrous clearance kicks. Rohan Janse van Rensburg's powerful running, along with loose forwards Jaco Kriel, Warwick Tecklenburg and Warren Whiteley's workrate were crucial. Hooker Malcolm Marx was a monster as well. Then there was the unsung hero Franco Mostert, who certainly came close. They may not have been flawless, but Elton Jantjies and Francois de Klerk pulled the strings when it mattered most and they get our award.
Moment of the match: So many moments. here was a strong start that saw the Lions go up 12-0 inside the first six minutes and then the Elton Jantjies drop-goal in the 53rd minute. There was the call by the TMO that there was no 'clear and obvious' Crusaders hand to a ball from a contest which resulted in Mitchell Drummond's try. But, above all, the switch between Howard Mnisi and Lionel Mapoe that resulted in Ruan Combrinck's try in the 69th min - that forced the Crusaders into takings risks that ultimately sealed their fate.
Villain of the match: No villains, just heroes in both teams.
For the Lions:
Tries: Skosan, Janse van Rensburg, Marx, Combrinck, Cronje
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 3
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Crotty, Drummond, Volavola
Cons: Mo'unga 2
Pens: Mo'unga 2
Yellow card: Luke Romano (Crusaders, 5 - cynical foul, offence at the maul)
Lions:15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Francois De Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylon Smith.
Replacements: 16 Armand Van Der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Jacques Van Rooyen, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco Van Der Walt/Sylvian Mahuza.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Jimmy Tupou, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Kieron Fonotia.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)