The Waratahs’ 2018 season is over after a 44-26 loss to a ruthless Lions side in Johannesburg.
Usual slow starters NSW sprinted out to an early 14-0 lead but the weight of altitude and the relentlessness of a Lions side that is heading to its third consecutive Super Rugby final ultimately wore the travellers down physically and mentally.
The Crusaders will be waiting for the Lions in Christchurch next weekend in the reverse of last year's decider that the Lions hosted.
Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies was steering at his most composed, while forwards Kwagga Smith and Malcolm Marx delivered turnovers and tries when it proved most painful for the Waratahs’ hopes.
The Waratahs kept to their promise of high-tempo rugby early on, not afraid to put it through the hands and take it to the Lions, whether it be forwards or backs offloading and looking for space.
It paid off as flanker Ned Hanigan put down the first points of the match in just the fourth minute, after a barnstorming run from lock Jed Holloway.
That and an early lineout steal were critical confidence boosters for a Waratahs team looking to shake off a reputation for slow starts.
If the Hanigan try was a big tick for the usual sluggish starters, an eighth-minute Israel Folau try from a strong lateral Waratahs build-up put that perception underground.
A ruck penalty against Sekope Kepu gave the Lions an opportunity and flanker Smith eventually found pay with their first score.
A run of penalties against the visitors only gave the Lions more momentum early in the piece.
Lions speedster Aphiwe Dyantyi burned a Bernard Foley tackle attempt and streaked away to cut NSW’s gap to two points as the game began to pivot in their favour.
It looked like the Lions had completed the turnaround when lock Franco Mostert crashed over in the 34th minute but a knock-on in the lead-up let the Waratahs off the hook.
That relief lasted barely a minute for the Waratahs as the Lions snatched the lead for the first time through Marx.
Waratahs loosehead Tom Robertson played the Lions at their own game just shy of half-time, slipping through the defensive line off a Jed Holloway offload.
If either side could claim the advantage coming out in the second half it was the Lions, with the fair share of territory and possession, but they had just a penalty goal to show for it.
Things looked ominous When Waratahs replacement hooker Damien Fitzpatrick was yellow-carded in the 55th minute and the Lions’ monstrous maul was finished off by Marx to widen the gap.
When Smith went over for his second in the 64th minute, looking up with only open space in front of him, the Waratahs’ chances of an upset looked slim.
Though they looked out on their feet, NSW kept fighting in attack even a man down but it was to no avail.
Another Jantjies penalty put the margin out to 18 points with six minutes remaining and all but set them on a collision course with the Crusaders.
Replacement halfback Jake Gordon finished off a clever Bernard Foley setup to give the Waratahs the lightest of sniffs but a pinpoint Jantjies cross-field kick put Courtnall Skosan over and sealed the deal.
The Lions will travel to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final next Saturday night.
Tries: Smith 2, Marx 2, Smith, Dyantyi, Skosan
Cons: Jantjies 4
Pens: Jantjies 2
Tries: Hanigan, Folau, Robertson, Gordon
Cons: Foley 3
Yellow Card: Fitzpatrick (55’)