Kwagga Smith and Malcolm Marx scored two tries apiece as the Lions reached the Super Rugby final following a 44-26 triumph over the Waratahs in Johannesburg.
Daryl Gibson’s outfit opened the match impressively, going 14-0 in front via Ned Hanigan and Israel Folau, but the Lions hit back with 19 unanswered points through Smith, Aphiwe Dyantyi and Marx.
Tom Robertson’s try levelled matters at the break before Elton Jantjies’ penalty restored the hosts’ advantage early in the second period.
The ‘Tahs were still in contention at that point but quick-fire efforts from Marx and Smith ended the visitors’ chances of securing their place in the showpiece event.
Jake Gordon and Courtnall Skosan traded tries late on but the Lions will take on the Crusaders in Christchurch. It is their third successive final and a repeat of the previous year’s contest, which saw the New Zealanders take the title.
Swys de Bruin’s men were favourites going into the contest but the visitors exposed their frailties in defence early on, touching down twice in the opening 10 minutes.
The dual playmaking axis of Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale were causing a number of problems for the home side and the latter’s long, looping pass created the space for Hanigan to scamper over for the first try.
They then combined from first phase to send the gargantuan Taqele Naiyaravoro powering down the left. Beale was on hand to support the wing’s break and, although the centre was brought to ground, the ball was recycled for Folau to score.
It was a stunning start from the Australians but the Lions were unconcerned and started to gain traction via their forward game. They made metres through their maul while the pack was also powerful in the loose.
Back-rower Smith had already displayed his strength and athleticism before the flanker went on another impressive surge, which led to him crossing the whitewash.
Having got back into the contest, the Johannesburg outfit were playing with much more confidence and that was shown by Dyantyi, who chipped ahead, regathered and stepped the final defender for a brilliant individual try.
Under pressure, the Waratahs were beginning to infringe and the hosts set up camp 10 metres out. Their driving game once again came to the fore and Marx was the beneficiary of his team-mates’ efforts to finish and give them the lead for the first time.
The Sydney team had struggled to gain much possession in the second quarter but, when Gibson’s charges finally did, they were clinical when an intelligent lineout move resulted in Robertson going over.
It was another setback for the South Africans but they responded well at the start of the second half. They dominated and earned a penalty opportunity, which Jantjies converted, for a 22-19 lead.
From the restart, Andries Coetzee and Marnus Schoeman then provided a couple of decisive moments as the Lions touched down for the fourth try.
Full-back Coetzee did brilliantly to claim an ‘up and under’ before Schoeman took play deep into opposition territory with a barnstorming run. Damien Fitzpatrick was sin-binned for offside and, with the ‘Tahs down to 14 men, Marx crossed the whitewash.
Minutes later, Smith repeated his team-mate’s achievement by going over for his brace and effectively completing the victory for the hosts.
Jantjies then added a penalty and there was still time for Gordon and Skosan to trade efforts late on, with the Lions ultimately too strong for the Waratahs.
Tries: Smith 2, Dyantyi, Marx 2, Skosan
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 2
Tries: Hanigan, Folau, Robertson, Gordon
Cons: Foley 3
Yellow Card: Fitzpatrick
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Lourens Erasmus, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Hacjivah Dayimani, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Courtnall Skosan, 23 Howard Mnisi
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Cam Clark
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)