JON CARDINELLI looks at the players and battles that will shape the outcome of the Super Rugby final between the Crusaders and Lions in Christchurch.
SCRUM: MOODY VS DREYER
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson is unlikely to make any unforced changes this week. All Blacks No 1 Joe Moody looks sets to start the final on Saturday, with Tim Perry providing loosehead cover from the bench. The All Blacks and Crusaders veteran Wyatt Crockett may continue to watch from the stands.
The Lions have scored 41 tries from first phase this season. The Crusaders have scored 36 when launching from the scrum, lineout or kickoff platform.
The stats confirm that these teams boast the most potent set pieces in the tournament, which suggests that the battle this Saturday could be one for the purists.
That said, it will be interesting to see if the Lions can stand up to the Crusaders at scrum-time, and whether they can get on the right side of referee Angus Gardner.
Ruan Dreyer has done a lot of good things for the Lions at the set pieces, mauls, and even with ball in hand. However, Dreyer has conceded 21 penalties over the course of the season – making him the second-most penalised tighthead after Sharks No 3 Thomas du Toit.
Dreyer may well be targeted by Moody during the initial stages of the final. How the Lions tighthead responds to the pressure may well determine how much momentum the visitors enjoy, especially on attack.
LINEOUT/MAUL: WHITELOCK VS MOSTERT
Franco Mostert goes into this final as the top-ranked lineout winner – on his own ball – and the second-best lineout stealer. While Marvin Orie, Warren Whiteley and several others deserve credit, Mostert has been the leader at this set piece and is thus largely responsible for the side’s mauling success.
Sam Whitelock’s Super Rugby stats have been less impressive. And yet, one cannot forget the impact the No 5 has had for the All Blacks and Crusaders over the past decade.
Whitelock got the better of Mostert at the lineouts in the Super Rugby decider last year. If the Crusaders skipper replicates that performance this Saturday, the Lions will battle to secure possession from this set piece and unleash their formidable maul.
BREAKDOWN: TODD VS SMITH/MARX
Matt Todd is another who stepped up to deliver an influential performance in last year’s decider. More recently, the openside flanker was named Man of the Match after the Crusaders beat the Lions 14-8 at Ellis Park in the conference stage.
The Crusaders will go into this match without Jordan Taufua, though. That injury may compromise the balance of the Cantabrians’ back row and provide the Lions with an opportunity at the collisions and breakdowns.
The Lions defence has been erratic this season, when one considers the number of tackles they have missed and the tries they have conceded. Where they have been consistently good, however, is at the breakdowns.
Kwagga Smith is celebrated for his strength in the tackle and finishing ability. The openside flanker has made some important steals for the Lions in 2018, though. Smith has forced nine turnovers. Only David Pocock (10) of the Brumbies has won more.
Malcolm Marx has played a massive role on defence. The hooker currently leads the tournament for forced penalties at the ruck and maul. The Lions will need the 2017 SA Rugby Player of the Year to be at the top of his game if they are going to stifle the Crusaders this Saturday.
GAME MANAGEMENT: MO’UNGA VS JANTJIES
The Crusaders have looked a lot sharper since Richie Mo’unga returned from injury. The young flyhalf should be a handful for the Lions defence this Saturday, especially if the Crusaders win the set-piece and breakdown battles.
Elton Jantjies has shown some good touches in the playoffs, though. Many have made the point about this final presenting a last opportunity for the mercurial pivot to prove his worth. A dominant performance by the Lions pack will make Jantjies’ life easier.
Defence has long been his weakness at Super Rugby and Test levels. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Crusaders backs targeting Jantjies’ channel on Saturday. Only Kurtley Beale and Samu Kerevi have missed more tackles than Jantjies this season. The Lions flyhalf comes into this final with a tackle-success rate of 59%.
LEADERSHIP: WHITELOCK VS WHITELEY
The Crusaders come into this match with several advantages. They’ve never lost a Super Rugby playoff at home, and should expect to have a physical and psychological edge over a team travelling all the way from South Africa for a final.
Whitelock and the other senior players in the team won’t panic if the hosts go into half-time trailing the Lions on the scoreboard. The Crusaders have the ability to move up a gear in the second stanza.
The Lions need to start well and take the right options in the first half. All eyes will be on Warren Whiteley regarding the call to kick for goal or take the lineout.
The Lions are one of the fittest teams in the tournament, a statement that is supported by their fourth-quarter stats. The journey from Johannesburg to Christchurch, however, would have taken a lot out of them, and by Saturday they may still be struggling with jet-lag.
Will this influence Whiteley’s decision-making in the first half? Will the Lions throw everything at the Crusaders early on with the aim of building a big lead, knowing that the Crusaders boast the best attacking and defensive record – in terms of most tries scored and fewest conceded – in the final 20 minutes?
It’s going to be a tough ask for Whiteley and his players, and coach Swys de Bruin’s management off the bench in the second stanza will also be under the spotlight.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images