Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Their “reward” for a coolly-manufactured home semi-final triumph over the Waratahs (44-26) seems more like a passport to purgatory.
But at least the Lions are well aware - and might quite enjoy - that they will be firm underdogs for Saturday’s Super Rugby final against defending champions the Crusaders in Christchurch (09:35 SA time).
“Play with no fear … simply throw everything they have,” was the advice of SuperSport pundit and former Springbok flyhalf Butch James in post-semi analysis.
In many ways, there will be less pressure on Warren Whiteley’s men this time, as they help the Cantabrians make history by featuring in the first ever final featuring the same two outfits in successive years - but also having to visit one of rugby’s most formidable fortresses.
The Lions have already confirmed a very praiseworthy landmark now by becoming the first South African side to reach the showpiece for three years running, even if the Bulls’ achievement of three appearances in four years is really more impressive because they won the silverware every time (2007, 2008 and 2010).
For the Johannesburg-based franchise, this is a desperate quest, by contrast, for “third time lucky” after their stumble at the last hurdles in both 2016 and 2017.
But just booking that final ticket again is nevertheless a glowing achievement by the Lions, considering how much more challenging it is to create genuinely title-quality teams in South Africa these days, so damaging has become the exodus of hardened players (and even some younger, emerging customers) to foreign shores.
“You give yourself a chance, just being in the final,” reminded Whiteley with pleasingly glass-half-full conviction in his immediate post-match television interview.
“There is no better place to go and do it than Christchurch.”
The latter reference, of course, was an automatic admission of the magnitude of the task facing the long-haul visitors, given the Crusaders’ amazing home record of 20 knockout-phase triumphs without any blemishes since the late 1990s.
Last year, the backdrop seemed near-perfect for a Lions triumph over the mighty ‘Saders in the final, given their Highveld advantage and the crucial fact - at the time - that no team had yet crossed the Indian Ocean either way to snatch the showpiece.
Trust the Crusaders, of course, to bust the pattern … as they duly did in a 25-17 victory.
So what price the Lions now doing it the other way around? The sensible argument, like it or not, seems to be lightning not striking twice (or at least so staggeringly soon).
The 2018 Crusaders just seem well-nigh unbeatable in high-pressure matches, and especially at their own stomping ground.
Remember also that the champions have already beaten the Lions again since the 2017 final, pipping them 14-8 at Ellis Park on April Fools’ Day in the latest version of the competition.
The Crusaders were also ruthlessly professional in their own semi earlier on Saturday, beating compatriots the Hurricanes by exactly the same margin (18 points) as the Lions saw off their plucky Aussie foes.
Still, the Lions share many of the constructive, entertaining rugby principles employed by their opponents next weekend, which should make for a rousing spectacle.
They would also be well advised to keep stressing among themselves over the course of the next few days that possibly their most polished, consistent standards of an otherwise imperfect season have come in the last three weeks, featuring clear-cut triumphs over the Bulls, Jaguares and Waratahs in that order.
Yes, there is a worrisome, associated little habit during the period of them “sleepwalking” in the first quarter … a luxury they almost certainly won’t be able to get away with in Christchurch, where any early frailties could simply mean curtains, and maybe nastily so, for them.
The phenomenon surfaced again on Saturday, the ‘Tahs romping into a 14-0 lead with some expansive play and very nearly making it a potentially more serious 21 or thereabouts: a budding breakout from deep was only thwarted by a priceless, smart interception from Ruan Combrinck.
But isn’t the ability - and just as importantly composure - to turn such adversity around and win with daylight to spare also the mark of a really good outfit?
The Lions have looked so emboldened in the last few weeks, in addition, by the return from injury layoffs of Whiteley as both their leader and educated No 8 and Malcolm Marx, the rampaging, multi-talented hooker who only seems to get better and better as an all-rounder in his pack-fulcrum berth.
In a game which many in New Zealand and elsewhere will otherwise contemplate merely as the Lions’ obliging strapping of themselves into the electric chair, if you like, a further factor to gee up the underdogs is the known break-up of the three-year (or more) core of their squad after this occasion.
There could be no better send-off for some of their contract-ending personnel than ticking the box for Mission Impossible ...
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