By Nick Said
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's Lions have overcome long-term injury and the defection of key players to stand on the brink of a third successive Super Rugby final as they welcome the New South Wales Waratahs to their fortress Ellis Park on Saturday.
The Johannesburg-based side lost away to the Wellington Hurricanes and at home to the Canterbury Crusaders in the last two deciders but are comfortably South Africa’s best side in the competition again despite a year of hardships.
Coach Swys de Bruin will hope his side are peaking at the right time as he was able to name close to a full-strength side for Saturday’s semi-final, with rampaging hooker Malcolm Marx, captain Warren Whiteley and livewire wings Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan all in the mix.
"Warren is the best captain in the world, he makes a hell of a difference," De Bruin told reporters. "Gratitude is the big thing, to stay humble and work hard. We try to make sure no one gets bigger than the game, that is paramount.
"I’m so pleased and proud because at one stage this season our whole spine was virtually out. Our captain wasn’t there, Malcolm wasn’t there, (Jaco) Kriel was also out for the whole season.
"But the other guys put their hands up. We took flak and criticism, but we stuck to our guns."
The Lions rely heavily on their attack - flyhalf Elton Jantjies has kicked only seven penalties all season as the team more often pushes for attacking lineouts no matter what the match situation.
They have also beaten on average 27 defenders per game this season, more than any other side in the competition.
On the Highveld and at their spiritual home of Ellis Park, those attacking instincts are even more in evidence and whether the Waratahs can contain their muscular forwards and livewire backs will be key in the contest.
The Waratahs claimed top spot in the Australian conference, but finished with the fewest number of points of the four semi-finalists and for them, perhaps, the expectations are lowest.
"No one's really giving us much of a chance on Saturday. We strongly believe we can win this game," coach Daryl Gibson said.
"I don't know I see this as a challenge, I see this as a reward. It's easy to be in charge of a team when it's going well. We're very confident, very full of belief and the energy's high.
"We're really determined to get another week in the season and it's a good place to be. We just need to go out and execute the things that we're planning for and do very well in the physical exchanges."
(Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Andrew Bolton)