The Lions will push the Crusaders close in the Super Rugby final if they take heed of their past final failures, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Lions went down 20-3 to the Hurricanes in Wellington two years ago. In 2017, they were beaten 25-17 by the Crusaders in the first Super Rugby decider staged at Ellis Park.
The odds were against the Lions winning the 2016 final, when one considers the amount of travel involved as well as South African rugby’s winless record in playoffs staged in New Zealand.
Johan Ackermann’s side began the 2017 decider as favourites, but were dealt a hammer blow when Kwagga Smith received a red card towards the end of the first half.
Would the Lions have prevailed in 2016 if they weren’t jet-lagged, and would they have won the trophy last year if Smith had remained on the field for 80 minutes? These are the questions that the coaches and players may have asked themselves in the wake of those gutting losses.
One would hope that other questions were asked, though, as they came into the 2018 season. Indeed, with only a few days remaining before a third consecutive final appearance, the Lions’ brains-trust should be making the necessary adjustments with the aim of avoiding the same tactical mistakes.
As if the challenge of playing in Christchurch wasn’t big enough, the Lions will face off against the most balanced team in Super Rugby over the past two seasons. Swys de Bruin has spoken about finding a chink in the red and black armour, which – as the Cantabrians’ 16 from 18 record suggests – is easier said than done.
There are so many similarities between the two sides, similarities that are highlighted by the stats. The Lions have scored the most tries to date, and the Crusaders the second most.
Both teams have used their lineout – and scrum – to devastating effect when one considers how many tries they have scored from first phase. Both teams have piled on the points in the fourth quarter of matches played this season – a period of the game where the fittest and most composed teams usually take control.
But, and this is not a small but, there is an area of the game that sets the Crusaders apart. Their rush defence has troubled a lot of teams this season, and they don’t miss many tackles. They’ve conceded fewer points and tries than any other team in 2018.
The Lions have produced a mixed showing as far as defence and game management are concerned. This doesn’t bode well, especially when one remembers how easily their defence was penetrated in the 2016 and 2017 finals. The Crusaders scored two tries in the first 11 minutes of last year’s decider.
As former Springbok coach Nick Mallett has pointed out, the Lions have the pack to challenge the Crusaders. When the Lions have fired up front in recent weeks, the likes of Elton Jantjies have taken excellent running and kicking options.
More will be required from the Lions on defence this Saturday, though. They lost all four of their matches against New Zealand opposition in the conference stage this season, and something could be read into the number of points and tries they leaked.
The Blues scored five tries against the Lions at Ellis Park. When De Bruin’s charges toured New Zealand, the Hurricanes put four tries past them in Wellington while the Highlanders scored five in Dunedin.
The match against the Crusaders in Johannesburg was an arm-wrestle. Ultimately, the Crusaders came out on top, winning 14-8 and outscoring the Lions by two tries to one.
When the Crusaders triumphed at Ellis Park last year, coach Scott Robertson put the win down to an excellent defensive display. It wasn’t a surprising statement given how many trophies are won on the back of outstanding defensive performances.
The Lions will need to produce a similar display in Christchurch this Saturday if they are to beat the odds and succeed where they failed in 2016 and 2017.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images