CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the Super Rugby final in Christchurch.
CRUSADERS vs LIONS, Christchurch, Saturday 9:35am
On Saturday, thousands of rugby fans in South Africa will pour a cup of coffee and turn their attention to this title decider with more hope than belief of witnessing an upset in Christchurch.
Of course, history and results suggest there can only be one winner.
To be clear, the Crusaders have won all 20 playoff matches they’ve hosted in Christchurch. Under coach Scott Robertson, they have also never lost a Super Rugby game at home over the past two years.
The eight-time champs are currently on a 14-match winning streak, and have won nine out of their last 10 games against the Lions – including last year’s final at Ellis Park.
It’s possible to go on and on in a demonstration of just how heavily the odds are stacked against the Lions, who have been widely placed as 7-1 outsiders to claim what would be a historic Super Rugby title.
However, you may well find that the Lions are quietly quite happy to head into Saturday’s battle as underdogs who have been written off by all and sundry.
There have been whispers out of the Lions camp to suggest that they will approach this final with a single-minded focus to embrace the occasion and hopefully deliver a few surprises along the way.
The Lions have drawn on their experience of last year’s decider, when the emotion of bidding farewell to coach Johan Ackermann and the weight of expectation as home favourites appeared to get to them.
Now, to have any hope against the indomitable Crusaders, the Lions know that they have to approach this final rematch with composure, self-belief and a determination to stick to their strengths.
Over recent weeks, that strength has increasingly swung back to a highly-efficient set piece, powerful maul and a pack of forwards who boast a virtually peerless work rate.
The Lions know that they will have to match the Crusaders’ All Blacks-laden pack if they are to have any chance of staying in the fight this Saturday, but it’s really on defence where the visitors must make a massive step up.
The Crusaders have consistently overpowered opposition with relentless phase play, while playing with the sort of width and precision that is a nightmare to defend against.
This season, the Lions have averaged just 82% in terms of tackle success, and therein lies the greatest challenge for the Johannesburg-based side this Saturday: to defend like they’ve never defended before.
Beyond that, the complexion of this clash could well be determined within the opening half-an-hour. If the Lions start poorly and are forced to play catch-up rugby, well, then pour a stiff coffee and toast to what will inevitably be a ninth Super Rugby title for the Crusaders.
However, if the Lions can produce a competitive performance in the opening exchanges, belief will build in their ability to put up a fight, before relying on the X-factor of a talented team that is desperate to avoid a third successive heartbreak in the final.
Everything points to what should be another victory for the Crusaders, but sit back and enjoy because nearly six months of competition have finally brought us to what should be a compelling final.
Stats and facts
- This game will mark the first time in Super Rugby history that consecutive finals have been contested by the same teams, with the Crusaders pulling off a 25-17 win over the Lions in the 2017 edition.
- The Crusaders have won nine of their last 10 games against the Lions, including their last two on the bounce. However, each of their last three wins against them has come by a margin of no greater than eight points.
- The Crusaders have won their last 14 games on the bounce, the last time they won more was a 16-game streak from April 2005 to April 2006.
- The Lions have scored 87 tries this season, more than any other team in the competition, but just one more than the Crusaders (86).
- Matt Todd made 21 tackles last round, the most of any player in the semi-finals. He’s now made 179 tackles for the season, which is the most of any Crusaders player.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather/Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Corné Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images