The Crusaders handed the attack-minded Lions yet another lesson in finals rugby, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Crusaders thumped the Lions 37-18 in the Super Rugby final. The result, as well as the performances by both sides, was largely expected.
Can we write off the Lions’ underwhelming showing to travel fatigue? The contest was always going to be compromised when one of the teams was forced to traverse the Indian Ocean only a few days before the championship game.
For that, Sanzaar must be held accountable. The structure of the tournament has been a burning issue since the conference system was introduced. The scheduling of the playoffs, however, has jeopardised the integrity of the tournament since its inception.
Only one team has overcome that hurdle in 23 years of Super Rugby. The Crusaders went to Johannesburg last year and won the final on the back of an abrasive defensive performance.
That said, travel wasn’t the reason why the Lions lost on Saturday. The defeat cannot be pinned on a few questionable calls by referee Angus Gardner either.
For the third year in succession, the Lions were outplayed physically and tactically. And for the third year in a row, defence triumphed over attack.
‘We won it on defence last year and did it again this year,’ said Crusaders coach Scott Robertson after the final in Christchurch. The ‘it’ could be taken to mean the final or the tournament as a whole.
The Crusaders won 17 out of 19 games in 2018. They finished the season with the best defensive stats, having conceded the fewest tries (44).
Does that mean they were conservative? New Zealanders may scoff at the idea, but here in South Africa, there appears to be a negative attitude towards game plans that rely heavily on defence.
The Crusaders outscored the Lions by four tries to two in the decider. The ability to transition from defence to attack was highlighted in that match, and across the conference stage. Indeed, no team scored more tries than the Crusaders (90) this season.
While the Lions were one of the better defensive sides during the 2017 conference stage, the cracks started to appear when they faced the Hurricanes in the semi-finals. When they came up against the Crusaders in the decider at Ellis Park, the Lions conceded two tries inside 11 minutes.
To say that the Lions have failed to address their shortcomings in 2018 is an understatement. The team ranked second in the tournament for missed tackles (483). Flyhalf Elton Jantjies ranked third in the individual standings with as many as 51 misses.
Jantjies, Ross Cronjé, Harold Vorster, Lionel Mapoe and Andries Coetzee finished the season with a tackle-efficiency rate of 63% or worse. The opposition experienced little to no resistance when running at the Lions back division, especially in matches where the Lions pack was outplayed.
The Lions lost all four games against New Zealand opposition during the conference stage. The recent loss to the Crusaders stretched their record against Kiwi sides to six defeats in seven matches over the past two years.
The task of winning in Christchurch was hyped as ‘Mission Impossible’. As a number of people opined in the buildup to the final, it would have made for one hell of a story if the Lions went on to win in that situation.
Without a doubt, it would have represented the biggest win by a South African side in Super Rugby history.
However, in the wake of another final defeat, the Lions coaches and players would do well to acknowledge that their approach is still wanting in key areas. The 19-point loss in Christchurch highlighted a lack of progress.
Immediately after the game, Warren Whiteley and his team were praised for their tenacity by a New Zealand broadcaster. The comment was made in the context of how far they have come since spending a season in the Super Rugby wilderness in 2013.
It’s an inspiring story when you think about how they have not only rebuilt the team, but broken all sorts of franchise records. They have also challenged the perception that South African teams don’t have what it takes to play attacking rugby.
That said, the Lions have been back in the Super Rugby fold for five seasons now. It’s time to move on to a new chapter.
They’ve won three South African conference titles in succession, and have featured in three finals. It’s time that they are held to a higher standard, and more was expected of them in a championship game.
It won’t get any easier in 2019, though. The Crusaders will have a number of seasoned All Blacks in their ranks, as well as youngsters like Richie Mo’unga, who will only improve over the next few seasons. By contrast, the Lions will be without a host of senior players. Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert and several others have decided to further their careers in Europe.
Regardless of who plays next season, the Lions must address their defensive frailties and move towards a more balanced game. As we’ve witnessed over the past three seasons, a superior defence is needed to win championships.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images