JOHANNESBURG - There is a very good reason why the Crusaders are the most successful team in Super Rugby history, and why they pose the ultimate challenge to the Lions: they are the best organised and most clinical of all the teams in the competition.
That’s according to Lions assistant coach Swys de Bruin, who has been tasked with finding the secret to getting the better of the seven-time champions and four-time runners-up - without question the most dominant side in the 21 years that Super Rugby has been going. The teams meet in the 2017 final at Ellis Park on Saturday.
De Bruin said this week that the men from Christchurch are without question in a different class to the four other New Zealand sides - the Blues, Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes, the outfit the Lions got the better of in last weekend’s semi-final and the 2016 champions.
“When you do the analysis on the Crusaders you realise why they have been such a strong team over the years. They’re just so much more clinical than the other teams. They hang on to the ball for long periods, they prize that possession, and they really work hard for each other,” said De Bruin.
“They’re an effort team with an excellent defensive system, run by their head coach (Scott Robertson), so in a way they are the most conservative of the New Zealand sides. The other teams will give you a few opportunities, like the Hurricanes did last weekend, because of the way they play, but not the Crusaders ... you’ve got to work for your chances.”
The Lions though showed in the quarter-final last year at Ellis Park that they have the game, players and belief to get the better of the multiple champions. They out-scored the visitors five tries to three to win 42-25 and went on to also beat the Highlanders (42-30) in the semi-finals.
Those performances, as well as playing in the final in Wellington, and featuring in a few big Currie Cup games in recent seasons has steeled the Lions players for what will be their biggest - and most pressure-filled - match of their careers.
“A home final ... phew, it feels almost unbelievable,” said De Bruin. “It’s nice, a blessing, and you can see how excited the guys are. Crucially though they’ve been in this position a few times now and they know what to expect.
"They’ve really matured as a group over the last five years, so the good thing is everything we do this week is like any other week. The only difference is we don’t have to travel ... and a big home crowd awaits us.”
De Bruin said the team had adopted a motto of “less is more” this week. “You can’t do much at this stage of the season,” he said. “The key is to focus on what needs to be done over 80 minutes, that’s all that matters. And we’ve told the players to enjoy every moment this week.
“For game day, the message will be simple ... never stop playing. We saw last weekend (against the Hurricanes) how crucial every minute is. A lot can happen in 10 minutes.”
De Bruin, who’s been head coach Johan Ackermann’s right-hand man since 2012, will take over the hot seat when Ackermann leaves the franchise next week to take up a position with Gloucester in England.