Defence to decide final

The breakdown contest between Ardie Savea and Jaco Kriel as well as the gainline battle will determine the outcome of the Super Rugby final in Wellington this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Beauden Barrett has proved an all-round threat in 2016. No player has scored more points in this year's tournament. No Hurricanes player has scored more tries or made more metres. Barrett has also created many scoring chances for his teammates with accurate passing and kicking out of hand.

The Hurricanes aren't short of firepower in the backs. TJ Perenara, Barrett, Matt Proctor, Jason Woodward and Cory Jane are all brilliant footballers and finishers. Then there's the likes of Julian Savea, who will be itching to prove a point when he's introduced from the bench in the second half.

The Lions need to keep these players in check on Saturday. They have to keep the Hurricanes on the back foot if they are to have any chance of winning the match and claiming their first Super Rugby title.

Like the Hurricanes, the Lions have played an entertaining and effective brand of rugby this season. And yet it's been the improvements with the boot and on defence that have allowed the Lions to progress through the playoffs.

The Lions' defence and tactical kicking will be under scrutiny once again this Saturday. They did well to rush the Highlanders in Johannesburg last week. They competed well at the breakdowns and collisions. Their linespeed ensured that the New Zealand side was forced to attack from behind the gainline.

They need to back this strategy in the coming final against the Hurricanes. It's a big ask, though, considering the travel factor as well as the fact that the Hurricanes possess one of the best breakdown exponents in the 2016 tournament.

Ardie Savea won three turnovers in the Hurricanes’ recent win against the Chiefs, more than any other player across the semi-finals. Savea has made 24 turnovers this season. Only David Pocock of the Brumbies (25) has made more.

The Hurricanes openside flank has got through a lot of work on defence. He will be expected to exert his influence at the breakdown in the decider at the Cake Tin, and ultimately boost the Hurricanes' chances of winning their inaugural Super Rugby title.

In theory, the Lions have what it takes to stifle Savea and provide their own set of backs with a good attacking platform. They smashed the top-rated scrum in the tournament at Ellis Park last week. Their lineout has already bested traditional set-piece giants like the Crusaders en route to the final. And against the Highlanders, they won the gainline battle and thus controlled the pace of the game.

Lions captain Warren Whiteley has recovered from injury and will join Jaco Kriel and Warwick Tecklenburg in the back row on Saturday. Most will view this as a boost to the Lions' attacking aspirations. But the visitors' priority this weekend should be winning the breakdowns and collisions. The loose forwards need to contain and stifle the Hurricanes.

The Lions are, of course, at a disadvantage in that they have travelled 12,000km for this fixture. They face a significant challenge in adapting to the new time zone in Wellington and battling the effects of travel fatigue before the game even commences.

It's been a long season, and the Lions loose forwards have played a lot of rugby. The big question is whether the visitors have sufficient petrol in the tank to outperform the Hurricanes in the crucial final 20 minutes of the contest.

No doubt Johan Ackermann and his coaches have spoken about it. Perhaps they will look to attack the Hurricanes from the outset, to build up a lead of 10 points or more before half-time. They will know that the Hurricanes, as the team that has not travelled across the Indian Ocean this week, will be stronger in the second half.

At the same time, the Lions have to balance their attacking ambitions with a solid defensive showing. They can't afford to be too expansive and loose in the initial stages. Mistakes on attack could be turned into points at the other end of the field.

The odds are against the Lions winning this final. A superior forward showing, particularly on defence, will improve the visitors' chances of claiming a first-ever Super Rugby crown for the Johannesburg-based franchise, and the first for South Africa since 2010.

Overall: Hurricanes 9, Lions 1
In New Zealand: Hurricanes 4, Lions 0

– There will be a new name on the trophy this year, meaning that five of the last six Super Rugby seasons will have seen a first-time winner.
– The Hurricanes have won nine of their 10 encounters with the Lions in Super Rugby, including each of their last seven.
– In those last seven wins, they have beaten the Lions by an average of 15.3 points per game.
– The Hurricanes are yet to win a final from two attempts, losing by seven points to the Crusaders in 2006 and by the same margin to the Highlanders in 2015.
– The Lions have won their last three games against New Zealand opposition, scoring in excess of 40 points on each occasion.
– Not since 2012 has a Super Rugby final been decided by more than the value of a converted try (Chiefs 37 Sharks 6).
– The Lions (25) and Hurricanes (23) have scored the second and third most tries from possession originating in their own half respectively this season. Only the Crusaders (26) have scored more.
– This final pitches the best attack against the best defence. The Lions have averaged a competition-high 36.4 points and 4.8 tries per game while the Hurricanes have conceded a league-low 19 points per game.
– The final sees the most prolific kickers in the competition go head to head. Beauden Barrett (71) and Elton Jantjies (70) have kicked more goals than any other players in the competition, though the Lions goal-kicker (74%) has been more accurate than his New Zealand counterpart (70%).
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Hurricanes Beauden Barrett (208) Beauden Barrett (8) Beauden Barrett (784) Ardie Savea (191)
Lions Elton Jantjies (187) Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Courtnall Skosan (10) Ruan Combrinck (1,161) Franco Mostert (146)

Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c)/Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Loni Uhila.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli/Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga/Reggie Goodes, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins/Tony Lambourn, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea.

Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt.

Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Ben O'Keefe (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

SA Rugby magazine team's SuperBru picks

The Money Man's betting tips

Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli