JOHANNESBURG - At the beginning of the season there weren't too many rugby fans who gave the Lions a chance of reaching a third straight Super Rugby final. So what has set them aside from the three other South African teams and why do they have a chance against the mighty Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday? Here rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen lists the five key things the team have got right in 2018 and what should serve them well this weekend
They may have lost a few key figures over the last 12 months, like Jaco Kriel, Warwick Tecklenburg, Ruan Ackermann, Julian Redelinghuys and their coach Johan Ackermann, but the Lions have maintained their potency in the scrums, lineouts and driving mauls. Hats off to new forwards coach, Philip Lemmer. The Lions are the best pack in SA and are the one pack that should be able to give the Crusaders a proper go. If they click on Saturday and are able to get their lineout drives working they’ll take some stopping.
Sadly, ill-discipline may have cost the Lions the title at home last year, when Kwagga Smith was red-carded for a clumsy challenge in the air on Crusaders fullback David Havili. Whether it was a fair call or not, right or wrong, is not the issue. The Lions remain one of the top teams when it comes to discipline; they have received just one yellow card this season; the Crusaders have been handed nine. Not giving away penalties on Saturday will be crucial; the Lions gave away seven last weekend; the Crusaders gave away just five.
Their try scoring
It’s hardly a surprise that the two top try-scoring teams are playing in the final; they’ve been rewarded for their enterprise, spirit and desire to entertain. Just one try separates the teams ahead of the final - the Lions have scored 87, while the Crusaders have dotted down 86 times. If the weather conditions are good and the Lions continue with their high try-scoring rate this weekend, they’ll certainly give their hosts something to think about. The Lions know how to score tries, even if it’s via their virtually unstoppable rolling maul.
It’s almost impossible to explain what this “brotherhood” is the Lions talk about. When you ask the players they tell you “you won’t understand or get it unless you’re a part of it”... and this seems to be the secret. The Crusaders also seem to have it. It’s been explained in part by Swys de Bruin and before him Johan... it’s a caring among players, coaches and management, it’s a desire to know the man next to you, there’s a no blame policy, there’s respect for every person, and there’s a feeling of gratefulness.
One thing the Lions have got right is their consistency... in selection, playing style, promotion of coaches etc. Few other local teams have been as stable as the Lions have in so many departments. When Johan and JP Ferreira left last year, the assistant coach, De Bruin, took charge, and he appointed new assistants from within the Lions coaching structures. They’re a team, and union, who’ve always promoted attacking, running rugby and the team selections have also always been consistent. They know what to expect, and they know what’s expected of them.