DYLAN JACK and MARIETTE ADAMS debate who will win a one-off battle between Vodacom Super Rugby title-holders the Crusaders and European champions Saracens.
Jack says Crusaders
Regardless of who wins, a match between two of the most successful clubs in recent history would be something many would traverse oceans to witness. But it is my thought that the Crusaders possess just enough to sneak a one-off against the English title-holders.
Saracens put in a massive defensive shift to deny Leinster any space to execute, and more than matched their pack in the European Champions Cup in Newcastle last Saturday. However, the Irish side did play into their opponent’s hands by constantly looking for go-forward through big ball-carriers before looking to shift the ball, especially in the second half of the final, where they also neglected the tactical side of the game.
That is not a mistake the Crusaders would make, especially with Richie Mo’unga at the helm. As much as they are (somewhat misleadingly) known as a team who will run the ball from anywhere, the Crusaders are a team who can kick the life out of you.
This was no better illustrated than in their recent hammering of the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld. The New Zealanders executed 10 kicks more out of hand than the home side and had far less of the ball, making more tackles. The result was that the Bulls were trapped in their own area, unable to escape, while some poor kick-chases were punished…
It is admittedly a difficult one to call, as both sides specialise in finishing games strongly. However, the Crusaders, much like the All Blacks, possess the unique mentality to be able to play their best rugby in the final 20 minutes.
Saracens, meanwhile, have made a bit of a nasty habit of slipping up when teams are able to go the full 80 with them, as was seen in their away defeats to Bath and the lowly Bristol Bears.
With the amount of rugby being played, it is doubtful whether we would ever see a high-profile exhibition in an already jam-packed calendar. But with their win-at-all-costs mentality, the Crusaders could take the one-off.
Adams says Saracens
What a match this would be? What an exhibition! First off, a game between the two most consistent club/franchise teams – one from either side of the equator – in the world could well be the only spectacle that could rival a World Cup final.
Once there was a case to be made that any Test between the All Blacks and Springboks would be right up there, but the world has been disabused of that notion in recent years, thanks in no small part to South Africa’s rapid stagnation after the 2015 World Cup. But I digress; that is a topic for another day.
Back to the Saders versus Sarries debate. I believe the English and European champions will have just enough firepower to take down the most successful side in Super Rugby history.
Last Friday, the Crusaders humiliated the Bulls at Loftus in what was described as an attacking masterclass on their way to a 45-13 win. The next day, Saracens produced a supernatural defensive display to rally from 10 points down to defeat a Test-laden Leinster side 20-10 in the Champions Cup final and secure a third European title over four seasons.
In terms of contrast, these were two performances you could hardly set further apart.
As argued above, Leinster played into Saracens’ hands by opting to go with forward runners (into a brick wall, mind) instead of using the width of the field through their backline. But the same thing may be said of the Crusaders, and here I’m not just talking about the Bulls meekly handing them the keys to Loftus.
On a weekly basis we see teams trying to match the Crusaders on attack, and more often than not that approach comes at the expense of their defensive responsibilities, which then plays right into Crusaders hands. This Saracens side, powered by the tactical genius of Mark McCall, is far too intelligent to fall into the same trap.
Saracens thrive on confrontation. In the final, Leinster dominated possession, but Saracens’ suffocating defence tackled the fight out of the Irish side. Centre Brad Barritt made 28 hits, locks George Kruis and Maro Itoje 27 and 26 tackles respectively, hooker Jamie George 23 and mercurial flyhalf Owen Farrell 18, with not a single missed tackle between them.
If you think this relentless defensive machine is just going to evaporate, were they to come up against the hard-running Crusaders, you are in for a surprise. When up against a side that can match their tactical kicking and hold its own in defence, we’ve seen the Crusaders struggle. It happened against the Sharks in Christchurch a fortnight ago, and it’ll happen again if they ever meet the Saracens.
The Crusaders also like to punish teams off their own mistakes. Saracens don’t make a lot of mistakes. They do create far less scoring opportunities than some of their European counterparts. But their low error count and high conversion rate (from scoring chances) are close to perfect.
Whether we’ll ever see the best attack in club rugby take on the best defence – and the southern hemisphere kings versus the northern hemisphere’s biggest powerhouse – remains to be seen. But I think if we do, the giants of the north will wrest the crown from the kings of the south.
Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images