Lions look like champions

The Lions were ruthless in smashing the Crusaders at Ellis Park, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.

Amid the toothless South African Super Rugby challenge, the Lions’ roar in hammering the celebrated Crusaders gives hope to the Springboks and life to rugby in this country.

New Zealand’s dominance and superiority with the All Blacks and in Super Rugby is a fact. The statistics over a 20-year period support every pro-New Zealand celebration.

Give the Kiwis their applause. They’ve earned it. Their rugby sets the standard, but that does not mean it can’t be matched or bettered, if not collectively, then individually.

This season, the Lions have played with the quality, intensity and skill of the best New Zealand Super Rugby franchises. It has been a treat to watch, but it is not uncommon for New Zealanders and neutrals who have enjoyed and acknowledged the joys of rugby as played by the very best New Zealand teams.

All Blacks and Crusaders captain Kieran Read offered no excuses after losing to the Lions. He said his players, among them a handful of current Test All Blacks, were not good enough on the day. He said the Lions had won more than the Crusaders had lost. He said his players had given their best, but it wasn’t enough to beat an in-form Lions team playing at home.

The Lions have been the in-form South African team for three seasons and in 2016, they have played with expression as much as desperation.

The best four teams in the competition will contest the semi-finals and the Lions, deservedly, are bracketed with New Zealand’s best.

Home-ground advantage in the final will be decisive. Of the 20 Super Rugby finals, the home team has won 13 times and only once has a team won the competition playing in another country.

South Africans will become Chiefs’ supporters on Saturday because a Chiefs’ victory against the Hurricanes, combined with a Lions’ win against the Highlanders, will ensure a first Super Rugby final for the Lions at home.

The Lions, when still Transvaal, beat Auckland in the Super 10 final – a competition that preceded the inaugural Super 12 in 1996. The Super 10 was a gimmick, played over a month.

The Lions of 2016 are the region’s history makers – and it is the right kind of history when compared to the historic failures that saw the Lions win just 15% of their matches in a 15-year period that included conceding the most points and tries in a season.

Now, it’s the Lions who have scored the most tries, with their attacking appetite not dulled because of the additional pressures of being in the playoffs.

Rookies in Super Rugby playoffs, they were ruthless in smashing a franchise whose players were contesting a record 31st playoff.

The Crusaders, seven times champions in the first 10 years of the competition, are no longer the champions of that first decade, but they’re still an imposing team whose consistency in making the playoffs is unrivalled in the history of the competition.

They’re a good side that are given the benefit of the doubt because of the heroics of those Crusaders who dominated the competition in the first decade.

I had them to edge the Lions in my pre-match call that had nothing to do with form and everything to do with history. The Lions showed the folly of my call and simply slaughtered the Crusaders in an opening 10-minute spell that produced two tries and 15 unanswered points.

Champion teams know how to start and how to finish and the Lions did exactly that. Champion teams also get reward in the big moments and none was bigger than the converted try with the last act of the first half.

Influential and inspirational Lions’ loose forward Jaco Kriel acknowledged that for the Lions to be champions, they would have to beat New Zealand’s best three teams in three successive matches.

They got past the Crusaders and now face the form New Zealand team in the Highlanders. Victory on Saturday would leave the challenge of the Chiefs in Johannesburg or the Hurricanes in New Zealand.

Kriel said the path to the final was the most difficult possible, but it’s the challenge the Lions players desired most because it would define their right to be called champions.

The Lions are SA’s domestic champions and it was essential for them to be contenders for Super Rugby’s title when the 18 teams were reduced to the final four.

Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix