Johannesburg - A magnificent comeback swept the Lions to the Super Rugby final with a 44-29 triumph over title-holders, the Hurricanes, in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The Lions host another New Zealand outfit, the record seven-time champion Crusaders, in the final next Saturday, seeking a first success in the competition.
But some gloss was taken off the victory by the controversial yellow-carding of Hurricanes flyhalf and 2016 Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett at a key stage of the semi-final.
While All Blacks playmaker Barrett sat in the "sin bin", the South Africans scored two tries and transformed a seven-point deficit into a 39-29 lead at Ellis Park stadium.
South African referee Jaco Peyper judged that after making a tackle, Barrett correctly rolled away, but illegally dragged the ball with him.
However, big-screen replays suggested Barrett accidentally pulled the ball away and was not guilty of a cynical foul.
A couple of SuperSport TV analysts believed expelling Barrett from the field for 10 minutes was a harsh call.
"It was a pretty tough decision against Beauden," said former Springboks loose forward and coach Nick Mallett.
Former South Africa flyhalf Naas Botha said: "It was a tough call against Beauden to show him a yellow card."
The incident could heighten calls for neutral match officials in the closing stages of an annual competition involving Argentine, Australian, Japanese, New Zealand and South African franchises.
By the time Barrett returned, the defending champions were on the back foot and an intercept try by Lions flank Kwagga Smith completed a particularly pleasing success.
Lions lost the 2016 final to Hurricanes in Wellington, their 10th defeat by the New Zealand outfit in 11 meetings, including a 50-17 drubbing at Ellis Park last season.
"I am the proud leader of a wise and fearless team," boasted Lions skipper and flank Jaco Kriel, deputising for injured Warren Whiteley, who will also miss the final.
"They displayed tremendous character to win after trailing by 19 points. We got a half-time rev from the coach (Johan Ackermann) and dug deep in the second half to succeed."
Hurricanes skipper and hooker Dane Coles, making his 100th Super Rugby appearance, admitted that the Lions were impossible to stop in the second half.
"They developed momentum that blew us away and the better team won. The Lions have improved greatly since losing to us in the final last year," said the All Black.
Hurricanes built the 22-10 half-time advantage through clinical punishment of wayward passes as the Lions committed unforced errors under pressure.
Tries just before and after half-time from prop Jacques van Rooyen and man-of-the-match award winner and scrumhalf Ross Cronje turned the tide.
As the stamina-sapping effects of the 1 750m gradually told on the defending champions, defence gaps appeared and the Lions took full advantage.
Driving mauls proved an especially profitable tactic, leading to several tries, and lock Franco Mostert was outstanding for the Lions in the set-pieces and loose exchanges.
Van Rooyen, Cronje, hooker Malcolm Marx, centre Harold Vorster, flyhalf Elton Jantjies and Smith were the Lions' try scorers.
Jantjies, back in form after a disastrous goal-kicking display in a close quarter-final win over fellow South Africans Costal sharks, slotted four conversions and two penalties.
Scrumhalf TJ Perenara, South Africa-born wing Wes Goosen, flank Ardie Savea and centre Ngani Laumape scored tries for Hurricanes.
The Barrett brothers shared the goal-kicking with fullback Jordie kicking two conversions and a penalty and Beauden one conversion.