JOHANNESBURG – Well, they gave it a mighty good go!
The Super Rugby final was, however, one step too far for Johan Ackermann and his Lions as they went down 25-17 to the Crusaders on Saturday.
They should never really have come so close after falling 25-3 behind after 53 minutes, but their fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude – which has won them fans all over the world – saw them close to within eight points of the Crusaders with seven minutes to play, but that would be as close as they got.
The now-eight-time champions, the Crusaders from New Zealand, were just too good for the second-time finalists; the Lions losing at the last hurdle for the second time in a row.
As good as the Lions were in a late, late show in a pulsating, yet at times one-sided final, they were well beaten in the last match of the 2017 competition...
There was no fairytale comeback like the week before against the Hurricanes, and no magical send-off for Ackermann.
The Lions boss, who has done so much over the last five years to turn the union around, will now take up a position with Gloucester in England.
The Crusaders were the better team throughout and fully deserve their victory. They became the first side in the 21 years of the competition to cross the Indian Ocean and win a final... with this their first playoff victory on the highveld in five attempts.
As expected, the visitors’ defence won them the game, as it has done throughout their 2017 campaign.
They were quick off the line to rush the home team, who were never able to get into rhythm or create any space for the backs, especially in the first half, and they beat the Lions at the breakdowns, too.
On top of that, they looked far more threatening with ball-in-hand and found holes in an at times very leaky Lions defence.
The big turning point of the match came in the 37th minute when referee Jaco Peyper – much debated before the game, but who had an excellent outing – handed outstanding Lions flank Kwagga Smith a red card for a dangerous “tackle” on David Havili, who was knocked out when both men went up for a high ball.
It was the right call, but it made the Lions’ job that much more difficult.
But if truth be told, Ackermann’s men were already up against it. At that stage they were 12-3 down after the Crusaders had scored two quick tries by Seta Tamanivalu and Jack Goodhue – both from Lions mistakes.
Tamanivalu went over after the home team failed to secure possession at a ruck and the ball was turned over, and Goodhue went in after a slew of missed tackles by Lions players.
At 15-3 down at the break, it was a long way back and when Kieran Read strolled over to help his side into a 22-3 lead after the interval, it was pretty much over.
Ruan Dreyer was heavily penalised at the scrums throughout the contest, and when Richie Mo’unga made it 25-3 with a penalty in the 53rd minute, it looked as if the home team would fall apart.
But they didn’t, fortunately for Ackermann and the Lions fans. Of course, they didn’t.
With the replacements sent on to have a go at the tiring Crusaders, the Lions found some rhythm and got some fight in their bellies, and they scored two tries through Malcolm Marx and Corné Fourie to set up a thrilling climax.
They wouldn’t score again, though... their campaign ending on a high, but without victory and without success.
Lions 17 – Tries: Malcolm Marx, Corné Fourie. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalty: Jantjies (1).
Crusaders 25 – Tries: Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, Kieran Read. Conversions: Richie Mo’unga (2). Penalties: Mo’unga (2).