The Hurricanes won Super Rugby’s main prize more than the Lions lost it, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Neither side wanted for desire, commitment and passion. This was not a case of one side wanting it more than the other. The better team on the night won. It really is that simple.
The Lions must be applauded for their finest season in the history of the competition. Equally the Hurricanes, who won the title for the first time and allowed New Zealand rugby to celebrate another milestone in all their five franchises having held the title.
I’ve never accepted or entertained the notion that a team playing in a final wants to win it less than the team who ultimately succeeds. It’s a bit like watching a big brute throttling a little one and dismissing the inevitable capitulation of the small guy by suggesting he doesn’t want to live.
The Lions, along with the Chiefs, have been the most destructive attacking forces in this year’s competition. Both sides dazzled with their attack and ease in breaking down defences, yet the Hurricanes in a home semi-final and final kept both teams tryless.
They also kept the Sharks tryless and scoreless in the 41-0 quarter-final win. When a team does this, you give them the recognition.
Travel and difficult playing conditions were always going to prove a disadvantage for the Lions, but these could never have been offered as excuses.
SARugbymag.co.za's betting columnist The Money Man noted as much when he said the bulk of the Lions starting XV last travelled in March and that the total season’s travel of the Lions was less what the Highlanders had done in the last month of the tournament. His view was that it was a very well-conditioned Lions team travelling to Wellington and he, like myself, feared the playing conditions more than the possibility of fatigue.
The playing conditions meant the game was not played at a frantic pace and the last 20-minute travel bogey never became a factor. The difference was the defence of the home team and their ability to convert defence into attack and turn Lions mistakes into points.
The Hurricanes, traditionally a team blessed with more show ponies than work horses, put aside the pretty stuff and fronted physically and in those dark alleys where their forwards historically refused to go.
Former Sharks coach John Plumtree has been exceptional in giving the Hurricanes a harder edge up front and in enforcing respect for the basics of forward play.
This Hurricanes team, the first to win the title, has also played with the most balance in attack and defence.
The Lions, in the collisions and at the set piece, could gain no advantage. They were either matched or mastered in those respective areas and the collisions were especially brutal and physical. It wasn’t for a lack of desire that the Lions came second; it was more a compliment to what the Canes produced on the night.
If there is a criticism of the Lions play it is that their defence, while structured and measured, lacked the mongrel of the hosts and that halfbacks Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies struggled to cope with the intensity of the pressured rush defence.
De Klerk did not take on enough line-kicking responsibility to the Canes’ press defence and Jantjies, to combat the line speed of the Canes defenders, stood deeper and deeper and put more pressure on himself and his outside backs.
Jantjies has evolved his all-round game this year and been the form South African flyhalf but this final was a painful reminder – and lesson – to him of where he is still vulnerable. There is work to be done for Jantjies to be the Test general that he has in 2016 been in Super Rugby.
His goal-kicking – despite breaking Marnitz Boshoff’s season record – has been 5% off the difference in being one and two. The great kickers are 75% and up in their accuracy. Jantjies in 2016 was kicking at 70%. He has work to do but he has the mental resolve to meet those challengers in the Rugby Championship.
The Lions, Currie Cup champions in 2015, were easily the best South African team in the competition. They can take pleasure from a fantastic season, even if they will take little comfort from coming second when the biggest moment of the season asked the biggest question of their scrum and their attacking game.
But this was because the victor was just too good.
Photo: Martin Hunter/AFP Photo