(Reuters) - The New South Wales Waratahs getting over-run by an abrasive and relentless Lions side in their Super Rugby semi-final in Johannesburg would not have surprised many given the performances of the Australian team this year.
The Waratahs had started strongly with two early tries before the South Africans got back to 19-19 by halftime and then overpowered the Sydney-based side in the second half to win 44-26 and set up a final with the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Waratahs' run to the semi-finals was due in part to some good luck and the side's resilience and showed how much they have improved in 12 months after finishing 16th out of 18 teams last year with only four wins.
"In terms of the season it's definitely a massive improvement on last year," flyhalf and captain Bernard Foley said of their nine win, one draw, six loss results and Australian conference title.
"Whether it was good enough? A couple of games cost us in terms of where we could have been. We could have given ourselves a better chance in the tournament.
"But in terms of the whole squad, everyone wanted to be better, trained hard, and put the work in, and I think it showed, especially in the squad and staff.
"They challenged us to be better."
While they were better than last year, the semi-final, however, showed how inconsistent they were this season.
It was also reminiscent of a similar performance by Daryl Gibson's side when they blasted out to a 29-0 lead against the Crusaders in Christchurch before being ground down and overhauled to lose 31-29.
The following week, however, they demonstrated how dangerous their backs were given some space, when they overwhelmed a 14-man Otago Highlanders 41-12 to snap a 40-game losing streak for Australian teams in matches against their trans-Tasman rivals.
The Waratahs also produced arguably the best 17 minutes of their season in the 30-23 quarter-final victory last week against the Highlanders.
Sparked by the combination of Foley and inside centre Kurtley Beale they exploited a Waisake Naholo yellow card to score three tries in the 10 minutes he was off to overturn a 23-6 deficit. They then defended resolutely after Paddy Ryan was sinbinned for the last seven minutes.
Those 17 minutes, however, papered over the cracks the Highlanders had exposed with a controlled and composed performance when they dominated the forward exchanges and built scoreboard pressure.
The Lions ensured they did not repeat the Highlanders' mistakes and were far too clinical for the Waratahs with hooker Malcolm Marx and flanker Kwagga Smith relentlessly driving their side forward.
It only highlighted the weakness of the Australian sides, who have enough players to make a test-level pack for the Wallabies that will make them competitive, but not enough depth at Super Rugby level to consistently challenge teams in New Zealand and South Africa.
Their backlines, however, are full of exciting attacking potential and with Foley and Beale likely to pair again for the Wallabies they should pose problems in the southern hemisphere's Rugby Championship from next month, provided they get good quality, go-forward ball.
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)