Lions’ gamble could prove costly

Lions coach Johan Ackermann did not have to gamble with sending a second team to Buenos Aires, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

This is not being clever after the fact.

My column a week ago was emphatic that the Lions should take their strongest possible lineup to Buenos Aires, get the win (which on form they would have been favourites) and secure first place on the overall Super Rugby log.

The significance of being first meant that every playoff game would have been in Johannesburg. The 20-year history in Super Rugby is weighted heavily in favour of whoever hosts the final, with 13 of the winners home teams.

Bear in mind that figure would have been even greater had Australian and South African teams contested more finals. The core of those away wins have come from within New Zealand. Teams from SA have rarely enjoyed playoff success in New Zealand or Australia and nothing in 2016 suggests this would change.

The argument to rest players was not convincing. Many of the Lions players were not involved in the Springboks’ June internationals. The inspirational and influential captain and loose forward Jaco Kriel played just 20 minutes in the June international window.

The Lions players were magnificent in demolishing the Sharks in the first league match after the June internationals and predictably took five league points from their home win against the lowly Kings. They were in red-hot form and only needed to win in Buenos Aires to finish top and return to Johannesburg with momentum and the comfort of knowing their Super Rugby travel for the year had been completed.

A simple situation was complicated and a second-string Lions team was never a unit that gave any comfort of victory against a host team that was effectively the national team in another guise.

Much is made of how difficult it is for the Springboks to win in Buenos Aires, so why the optimism in a second-string Lions team? Blind faith spoke favourably of the Lions still being winners. A closer analysis would never have given an answer so loaded with confidence. The Jaguares beat the Lions second-stringers comfortably in a pre-season match in Johannesburg and were again comfortable winners in Buenos Aires. A home final could still be a possibility if the table-topping Hurricanes lose at home in the quarter-finals or semi-finals and the Lions win at home in those playoff rounds.

A table-topping Lions would have played the Sharks – who they have hammered twice this season – in the quarter-finals. So much risk when so little was needed. It was not a gamble. It was a poor management decision that could prove costly. This has been the Lions most successful Super Rugby league season, but it will count for nothing if they lose to the Crusaders, come Saturday.

The Crusaders are not the franchise powerhouse that dominated the first decade of the competition, but they are a team that has already beaten the Lions in Johannesburg this season. They have an excellent playoff record and their history shows success away from home in playoffs. Their post-June form has been awful and the seven returning All Blacks have struggled in back-to-back defeats against the Chiefs in Suva and the Hurricanes at home in Christchurch.

Again, the Crusaders defeats have context. They have struggled against their fellow countrymen, but have not lost against Australian or South African opposition. The one team any coach would have wanted to avoid at home in a quarter-final is the Crusaders. There is still hope the Lions will progress, but there certainly won’t be the same conviction had the opposition been the Sharks.

The Super Rugby format is a farce, but it is what it is and only one of New Zealand’s top four finishing franchises is hosting a playoff, despite all four teams winning 11 league games and ending with 50, 51, 52 and 53 league points.

All three of New Zealand’s teams travelling for a quarter-final have enjoyed success on the road this season, with the Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs all winning in SA and Australia. I hope for the best, but fear the worst for the Lions and the Stormers, who will play the Chiefs at Newlands.

The Kiwi derbies on Saturday were of an exceptional standard and played with an intensity and pace that has been absent in SA and Australia. A week ago, I’d have roared the Lions are champions in the making, but I believe it will be four New Zealand teams in the semi-finals.

Photo: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images