South African rugby needed the Lions to win
Johannesburg - The sideshows leading up to Saturday's Super Rugby final gave the spectacle a potent injection of emotion.
Johan Ackermann's big farewell, Scott Robertson's shot at making history, the biggest crowd Ellis Park has seen in recent memory, the attention on referee Jaco Peyper ... there was certainly a lot going on.
It looked like a Lions win was meant to be.
Ackermann had taken this team from Super Rugby relegation to back-to-back finals in just four years, and given the nature of the comebacks in both the quarter-finals and semi-finals, it looked like the stars were aligning.
And while that story, and the disappointment that followed defeat, is what affected the players and fans most, Saturday's loss was about more than just the Lions.
As the Springboks look to continue their recovery from a terrible 2016, this final presented an opportunity to demonstrate that South African rugby has closed the gap on New Zealand.
In truth, the Lions are the only South African side who can really claim to have done so.
Yes, the Stormers have that win against the Chiefs at Newlands, but their tour to New Zealand this season proved that they still have a long way to go.
The Lions winning Super Rugby would have been encouraging news for Bok coach Allister Coetzee, and it would have inspired a much-needed dose of confidence ahead of this season's Rugby Championship.
Of the 15 Lions who started Saturday's final, 10 have played for the Boks in the Coetzee era.
The Lions, understandably, are contributing more and more players to the national set-up and, with the Crusaders pack on Saturday boasting seven All Blacks, a home win would have gone down well.
The red card to Kwagga Smith ruined the game to an extent, and Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said afterwards that it probably shaped the result, but the Lions were already on the back foot when that incident took place.
They almost looked nervous.
Looking after the ball was a constant struggle, there were some strange decisions taking place and whenever the Lions were defending there was the feeling that the Crusaders could make something happen.
Take nothing away from the visitors; their defence was astounding, particularly in the last 25 minutes when the Lions finally had their tails up.
But, unfortunately, South Africa's best side was disappointing in the first half.
Their late flurry when the Crusaders were tiring made for some good viewing, but the Kiwis had won the game already by taking a 15-3 lead into half time and then extending that to 25-3.
So, should South Africans be encouraged by the Lions campaign this year?
Yes and no.
The good news is that the Lions have made back-to-back Super Rugby finals and they are supplying the Boks with more players than anything other franchise.
They have shown that, under the right leadership, South African players can play a brand of rugby that is both exciting and competitive.
The Lions lost just twice all year and they certainly entertained along the way.
The bad news is that the other South African franchises still find themselves some way behind.
And, perhaps even more concerning, is that one of the greatest South African Super Rugby teams in history still couldn't knock over a New Zealand side, at home, in front of a packed stadium and at altitude.
If this was not the perfect opportunity for a South African side to win the country's first Super Rugby title since 2010, then I'm not sure what is.
Lloyd Burnard is a journalist at Sport24 and the former Sports Editor of The Witness newspaper ...
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