WELLINGTON – The Golden Lions head into this weekend's Super Rugby semi-final against NSW Waratahs desperate to erase painful memories of losing the 2016 and 2017 competition deciders.
Hooker Malcolm Marx insists that rather than leaving the Lions mentally scarred, the back-to-back defeats made them tougher and more determined to go all the way this year.
“I think we're a bit more experienced now that we've had two finals under our belt,” he said ahead of the final four clash in Johannesburg on Saturday. “I definitely believe we're as strong as we were a year ago.”
The other semi-final is an all-New Zealand affair pitting the defending champion Canterbury Crusaders against Wellington Hurricanes in Christchurch.
The Lions start as favourites against the Waratahs, who have never won a finals match away from home and suffered a 29-0 loss to the South Africans in Sydney earlier this year.
Former Lions coach Johan Ackerman predicted the Sydneysiders, who staged an epic comeback against Otago Highlanders to reach the semis, would struggle at altitude in Johannesburg.
“(The Lions) have shown they can go into an extra gear in the last 20 minutes, the Waratahs won't be able to keep up with the pace over the 80 minutes,” he said. “They won't come back like they did against the Highlanders.”
The Waratahs have not won at Ellis Park since 2009 but halfback Nick Phipps said they would stick with their brand of “quick, unrelenting footy”.
“We're not going to come into a semi-final and change the way we play now,” he said. “We're not going to die wondering. We're ready to play our game and play it to the best of our ability.”
Discipline vital: McCaw
The Hurricanes will also be battling history when they face an in-form Crusaders outfit gunning for a record-extending ninth Super Rugby title.
The Crusaders are on a 13-match winning run and have turned Christchurch into a finals fortress, never losing any of the 19 post-season matches hosted there.
Additionally, the hosts have emerged victorious in all 11 semi-finals contested by two New Zealand teams, including three Crusaders' wins over the Hurricanes.
However, the Hurricanes can take comfort in the fact that they have won six of their last nine meetings against the Crusaders.
The 2016 champions also have one of the most potent backlines in the competition, marshalled by two-time world player of the year Beauden Barrett.
The Crusaders should have an edge up front with a pack that collectively boasts around 400 international caps.
But former captain Richie McCaw said there were lapses of discipline in the 40-10 quarter-final win over Coastal Sharks that the Hurricanes would punish.
“It's the little mistakes and the back-to-back penalties that allow momentum to go against you,” he told TVNZ. “It can be one or two things like that and you go from being on the front foot to all of a sudden, with the guys the Hurricanes have got, being under pressure.”
The Crusaders beat the Lions to claim last year's title and the Hurricanes denied them in 2016, meaning the South Africans still face a daunting task if they down the Waratahs to reach a third straight final.
But Marx said adversity had forged the Lions into a tight unit ready for any challenge.
“I can only describe the environment here in one word - brotherhood,” he said. “It's hard to actually explain unless you've experienced it yourself.
“Everyone cares about each other, it's not about the individual, but rather how we can help each other to perform as well as possible as a group.”