The Lions have taken their first step back into Super Rugby by beating the Southern Kings 26-19 in the first leg of South Africa's promotion-relegation playoff at Nelson Mandela Stadium.
Centre Stokkies Hanekom scored two tries for the Johannesburg-based Lions on Friday (local time) to put them in position to take the Kings' place in the southern hemisphere's top rugby league next season. Flyhalf Elton Jantjies kicked 16 points on his return to the Lions from a season-long loan at Cape Town's Stormers.
The teams will face off in the decisive second leg at the Lions' home at Ellis Park in Johannesburg next weekend, when a Lions victory will return them to the Super 15 after they were relegated in 2012 for the Kings. It is the first time Super Rugby has held a promotion-relegation playoff.
The Lions took four points for their victory, while the Kings managed just a bonus point from their home leg for being within seven points. The teams earn points in the playoff in exactly the same way as in Super Rugby's regular season, meaning if the Kings win and deny the Lions a bonus point at Ellis Park they will leap above their challengers and maintain their place. If the franchises finish the two games with the same amount of points, their aggregate scores will decide the winner.
The Kings also scored two tries on Friday night, but were overtaken by the slow-starting Lions and also lost flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis - their important goalkicker - to an arm injury in the second half that could put his participation next weekend in doubt.
Wing Marcello Sampson scored from a Catrakilis cross-kick for the opening try in the 28th minute, finally breaking the Lions' defence after the Kings had territorial advantage throughout the first half. Catrakilis' third penalty put the Kings 13-12 ahead in the 34th as the Lions initially relied on Jantjies' boot for their points.
But Hanekom snatched an interception and ran more than 50 meters for his first try against the tide just before halftime. As the Lions settled, Hanekom worked his way over in the 66th from close range after breaking the Kings' first line of defence for his double and a 26-14 lead.
Replacement forward Steven Sykes got the Kings' second try with 10 minutes to go and with the Lions were down to 14 men with centre Dylan Des Fountain's sin-binning. But the Kings couldn't get any closer than seven points and now face relegation from Super Rugby after just one season in the big time.
Lions 26 (Stokkies Hanekom 2 tries; Elton Jantjies 2 conversions, 4 penalties) Southern Kings 19 (Marcello Sampson, Steven Sykes tries; Demetri Catrakilis 3 penalties). HT: 19-14.
Which two NZ teams look the most likely to make the Super Rugby playoffs?