A moment of typical Gio Aplon brilliance prevented the Newlands Absa Currie Cup semifinal from being the contest it looked set to be as DHL Western Province powered to a 33-16 win over the MTN Golden Lions that sets up their first home domestic final in 12 seasons.
Up to the half-hour mark and a bit beyond that, the Lions were making a fist of their quest to shock the overwhelming favourites.
They had given WP plenty to think about in the early scrums, their physicality in the collisions was giving them at least parity in the battle for the gainline, and the hard-running Anthony Volmink was putting pressure on the diminutive back three with his chasing.
Lions fullback Marnitz Boshoff missed a long-range penalty near the start of the game, but Elton Jantjies was on hand to make up for the miss in the sixth minute to give the visiting team the early lead.
And although WP drew the scores level with a penalty from Demetri Catrakilis, the Lions were ahead again – and full value for that lead – with another Jantjies penalty in the 20th minute.
Even the first try that Province scored, through Demetri Catrakilis, which started with a Jean de Villiers run and was set up by a powerful break from big Duane Vermeulen, did not completely settle the home team, and there were frequent ragged periods which you could describe as 50/50 rugby where Province's reluctance to stick to their structure may have given the opposition more chance than they might otherwise have had.
But it was off one of those patches of sevens-type rugby that Aplon proved his game-breaking ability.
By then the WP lead was down to one point (10-9), and with halftime just three minutes away, the Lions would have been happy with the way the game was going.
The ball had flown left and right across the field, both teams taking their turns to attack, when it ended up in the hands of Aplon near the halfway line.
The fullback appeared to check for a moment before bursting through a gap, and then slowed to half pace as it looked as though he was considering passing the ball.
Lions fullback Marnitz Boshoff was slow to react though when Aplon clicked on his burners and both he and the Bredasdorp flyer Volmink were left in Aplon’s wake as he ran the ball in at the corner.
Catrakilis, who had an off day with the boot by his standards as he missed some early kicks, failed with the conversion, but he made up for it with a penaly on the halftime hooter to take WP into an 18-9 lead.
From being a close game, WP had suddenly opened up a gap in the closing stages of the half, and as much as that would have been a psychological boost for Deon Fourie’s men, so it would have been a psychological blow to the Lions.
In truth, although it wouldn’t be fair to suggest they capitulated tamely, the Lions were never really in the game after that, and WP pressure and a series of Catrakilis three-pointers stretched the champion team’s lead to 15 points by the 51st minute.
It wasn’t quite time to start booking tickets for the final, but just about, as the Lions needed to score thrice against the best defensive team in the competition.
The WP scrum that had struggled early settled in the second half, and the forwards took control in all phases as they committed the Lions to more and more of a defensive role the longer the game wore on.
Indeed, such was the dominance of Province by the end that it was hard to fathom that they hadn't added to their two first-half tries.
The Lions did strike back with a late try to No 8 Warren Whiteley, but by then the gap was 18 points and the score was no more than a consolation effort.
The 11-point deficit wasn’t going to be made up in the six minutes left of play, and for good measure WP went back into the Lions' half to drum home their advantage with two more penalties, this time kicked by replacement Kurt Coleman.
It was not a performance without blemish for WP, and the early scrumming problems will give them something to think about ahead of next week’s final at the same venue.
There were also a lot of basic errors early on, and had the Lions taken their early opportunities, they might well have put scoreboard pressure on Province by opening an early lead.
That it didn’t happen was as always at least partly down to WP’s excellent defence, though it was the Lions who had to do most of the defending after halftime as Province took control of the match and their destiny.
There were a couple of times when it looked as though WP were building up for a try only for great defending to keep them at bay.
But Lions coach Johan Ackermann later lamented the missed tackles that allowed WP to slip the early noose that had been placed around their necks.
“It would have been good to see what might have happened had we made full use of our opportunities early in the game and thus put Province under proper pressure, but we weren’t able to do that and you have to give credit to WP,” said Ackermann.
“They will definitely start the final as favourites next week regardless of who they play as I don’t see them having any areas where the opposition can say that they have a weakness that can be exploited.”
WP - Tries: Demetri Catrakilis, Gio Aplon. Conversion: Catrakilis. Penalties: Catrakilis (5), Kurt Coleman (2).
Lions - Try: Warren Whiteley. Conversion: Marnitz Boshoff. Penalties: Elton Jantjies (3).