The resurgent Lions are one win away from completing a rags-to-riches fairytale and denying the Hurricanes their own maiden Super Rugby crown after ending the Highlanders’ title defence.
Six-times wooden spooners and perennial cellar dwellers, the Lions thrilled 51,000 home fans in Johannesburg with a dazzling display in their 42-30 defeat of the travel-weary Highlanders to book their place in the competition finale for the first time.
The Hurricanes made the tournament decider for the second straight year with a 25-9 triumph over the Chiefs in Wellington, the three-try shutout confirming another home final for New Zealand’s only team still without a Super Rugby title.
The outcome of Saturday’s championship showdown between two great attacking sides appears to rest largely on their brilliant five-eighths after Lions playmaker Elton Jantjies followed up Beauden Barrett’s match-winning display for the Hurricanes with his own masterclass on Sunday (AEST).
Jantjies contributed 22 points from a tone-setting opening try plus four conversions and three penalties at Ellis Park.
The Lions dominated to have the semi-final in the bag at 42-16 before the Highlanders scored two late tries to add some respectability to the scoreline as a torrid month of international travel took its toll on the fallen champions.
Saturday’s final at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium promises to be an enormously physical clash as well as a scintillating display of running rugby, after both teams dominated their semi-finals opponents in the contact zone.
The Lions will be underdogs in Wellington but nevertheless looking to crown their stunning rise from two decades in the doldrums with a maiden championship in their 20th season in Super Rugby.
Formerly the Cats, the long-time South African easybeats finished last in 1998, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012 and were even relegated from the 2013 tournament to make way for the Southern Kings.
But under coach Johan Ackermann, the Lions are born again as 2016’s most potent attacking outfit.
Ackerman’s decision to roll the dice could come back to bite him.
He rested all his leading players from the long final round trip to Buenos Aires, when the Lions lost to the Jaguares, and that result has cost them a home final as the Hurricanes finished as top seeds instead.
The Hurricanes have their own unfinished business to tend to after failing on eight previous occasions to convert semi-final appearances into a title, including losses to the Crusaders in the 2006 final and last year to the Highlanders after finishing top of the table.
They have overcome the loss of All Blacks centre greats Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu after last season, with halves Barrett and TJ Perenara stepping up as on-field leaders.
However they will again be sweating on the fitness of their influential skipper, All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who was forced to miss the semi-final with a rib injury.
Hurricanes boss Chris Boyd said last year’s grand final defeat would definitely serve as motivation to go one better in 2016.
“We’ve got a bit of a roll, a bit of momentum now, which is nice,” Boyd said after his side kept the Chiefs try-less on Saturday night.
“Obviously the pain from last year’s final is still with us but we’ll be throwing the kitchen sink at it.”
2016 SUPER RUGBY FINAL
1-HURRICANES v 2-LIONS at WestpacTrust Stadium, Wellington, Saturday, 1735 AEST
Played 17; Hurricanes 14, Lions 3
In Wellington: Played eight; Hurricanes 8, Lions 0
Last clash: Hurricanes bt Lions 50-17, Johannesburg, Rd 10, April 30, 2016
Best finishes: finalists 2006, 2015, 2016
2016 record: Played 15, won 11, lost 4, 53 competition points = minor premiers
Best finishes: finalists 2016
2016 record: Played 15, won 11, lost 4, 52 competition points = 2nd