Five lessons from the past weekend's Super Rugby final, according to CRAIG LEWIS.
Lions’ season should still be celebrated
In the midst of the disappointment that follows the Lions’ loss to the Hurricanes in Saturday’s final, we should not lose sight of what a special season it has still been for the Johannesburg-based side. Not only did they deservedly finish top of the South African group and progress to the playoffs for the first time since 2001 (then as the Cats), but they also impressively reached their first-ever final after clinching resounding playoff wins over the Crusaders and Highlanders. Moreover, it was their attractive and game-changing style of rugby that should be celebrated. The Lions’ efforts over the course of the campaign defied the perception that South African teams can’t play with the sort of skill and freedom that has so long been associated with New Zealand rugby. Although the Lions fell at the final hurdle, they should be serious contenders next year when they face off against the Australian sides during the conference stage. But for now, they certainly still deserve plenty of plaudits for embracing a brand of rugby that has provided a much-needed feel-good factor for South African rugby.
Conditions, tactical execution and errors cost Lions
While the Lions’ success this season should certainly still be celebrated, there is no doubt that there will be some frustration at the manner in which they came unstuck against the Hurricanes. Despite the fact that wet weather had been expected in Wellington, they failed to make the necessary tactical adjustments on game day, and played far too much rugby in their own half, while their kicking did leave a lot to be desired at times. The Lions should have also expected to face a ferocious Hurricanes rush defence, and yet they looked rather rattled by the ferocity of the hosts’ line speed, and ultimately Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies didn’t have the time or space to run the game as they would have liked. The Lions’ handling also let them down in the wet weather (they knocked the ball on 14 times), and ultimately the tactically superior Canes were able to feast on errors and keep the scoreboard ticking over as they scored two opportunistic tries.
If you have the opportunity to top the overall log, take it
Hindsight is a perfect science, but one has to wonder whether the Lions’ brains trust would make a different decision if they were able to rewind the clock to the week before their final conference clash against the Jaguares. The Lions opted to rest all of their top players for this clash, and while it enabled the team’s first-choice contingent to be fresh for a home quarter-final and semi-final, it also effectively saw the Johannesburg-based side sacrifice top spot in the overall standings. As a result, the Hurricanes ended up hosting the final in typically adverse conditions that they would have been far more accustomed to. There’s really no point questioning the ifs and buts of the selection decision ahead of the Jaguares conference clash, but there is a lesson to be learned in that if you have a chance to top the overall log, this should be seen as a priority. No overseas team has won a final in New Zealand, and the odds were always heavily stacked against the Lions when they had to travel to Wellington. If the title decider had been held at Ellis Park, we may well be celebrating the Lions’ first-ever Super Rugby title.
Defence wins matches
There can be no denying that the Hurricanes’ incredible defence provided the foundation for their victories throughout the knockout stage. In their semi-final against the Chiefs, the Canes had to make 113 tackles to 68, and yet they still managed to repeatedly thwart the Chiefs’ attack and keep the visitors from scoring a single try. Against the Lions, they again had to make plenty more tackles than their opponents, but their line speed effectively turned defence into attack, while they cut down the time and space that Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies would have desired. This season, the Canes have had a decent 84.8% tackle success rate, but it’s really been the slow-poison effect of their rush defence that has been a hallmark of their success. They didn’t concede a single try throughout the playoffs, and that about says it all.
Hurricanes are deserved champs
Beyond lamenting a missed opportunity for the Lions, there really can be no denying that the Hurricanes are worthy champs. The Canes cruised through the conference stage of the competition before finishing with a flourish to suddenly shoot to the top of the overall standings on the final weekend of regular-season action. They continued to ride this wave of momentum in the knockout phase, with the Kiwi side embracing an effective all-round brand of rugby perfectly suited to playoff rugby. Their defence complemented efficient attack, while their appreciation for a strong kicking game and solid set piece provided a foundation for a historic Super Rugby title. They finished the season in the top five in terms of tries scored, clean breaks, carries, metres made, defenders beaten and scrum success. After finishing as runners-up last year, they shored up their shortcomings and ultimately emerged as completely deserved champs in 2016.
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