The Lions are good enough to win an away Super Rugby final against the Hurricanes, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
The past two Saturdays at Ellis Park have been rugby poetry from the Lions. They’ve destroyed the best of New Zealand’s south island playing the game with expression, freedom, intensity and intelligence. They have killed off the belief that South African players lack skill or ball-in-hand ability.
This Lions team plays like the best of the best. They’ve beaten four of the five New Zealand franchises and they won for the first time in Hamilton against the Chiefs.
The only blemish has been the 50 points they conceded to Saturday’s finalists the Hurricanes at Ellis Park. That was an aberration in the context of the season and they get the chance of redemption this Saturday, although they have to travel 12,000 miles to make good on that one match when they looked more pretender than contender.
The Lions have dominated domestically in South Africa in the past two seasons. They are the Currie Cup champions and it was so important for the credibility and integrity of the Currie Cup that South Africa’s domestic best be prominent among Super Rugby’s best.
The Lions are a champion team. There can be no argument about this. They face another champion team in the Hurricanes and the two best teams in the competition will contest the right to be called the best in the southern hemisphere.
A neutral venue would have been ideal, but that will never happen. A fortnight break between the semi-final and final would have allowed for no travel excuses, but that’s another dream that isn’t a reality.
The Lions, to complete their finest season in the history of Super Rugby, must do what no team from Australia and South Africa has ever done before – and that is travel to New Zealand for a one-off final and win.
Jake White’s Brumbies came the closest in recent times. They beat the Bulls in Pretoria and then were 15 minutes away from the most famous of wins against the Chiefs in New Zealand.
It didn’t happen. Aaron Cruden’s desperate tackle denied Clyde Rathbone and with the try-scoring chance gone, the Chiefs found an extra gear to bury the Brumbies.
It’s a reminder of the small margins in any Super Rugby final and history is a big reminder of the enormity of the task facing the Lions.
Nothing should detract from the Lions' season. This is not to celebrate coming second because the Lions have not been bridesmaid to anyone in this tournament.
They are the equal of the Hurricanes in terms of consistency and results. But they give up 10 points to the Hurricanes because of the Kiwi home advantage.
Can the Lions win?
Yes, they can. They’re good enough and their style of play resulted in 10 tries against the Crusaders and Highlanders respectively. They’ve also scored the most tries in the competition this season.
But nationalism and patriotism mustn’t dim the view of what awaits. The Canes at home have been brutal most of the season. They humiliated the Sharks 41-0 and then kept the explosive Chiefs tryless.
A week previously the Chiefs had scored nine tries in Cape Town in putting 61 points past the Stormers. Yet they couldn’t find a way past the Hurricanes defence.
The Canes are renowned for their attack but their defence in 2016 has been as dominant a feature of their game.
Whatever the result, this will be a final to match any in the history of the competition. The individual match-ups are world class. Just think of Jaco Kriel and Ardi Savea at the breakdown.
Player for player there’s nothing decisive in advantage. These two teams match each other in every aspect.
It’s a New Zealand versus South African rugby contest that has the appeal of any great All Blacks versus Springbok match-up.
The Lions, to win, must do the extraordinary against a home team whose playoff dominance made the Sharks and Chiefs look very ordinary.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images