JOHANNESBURG - The Lions reaching three consecutive Super Rugby finals is something special and needs to be celebrated. It is a wonderful achievement for the union, the players, the coaches and the fans.
Whatever happens in Christchurch on Saturday won’t take away from the fact the Lions have been South Africa’s best team for three years and one of the best in Super Rugby in the same time period.The Lions haven’t been given much chance of toppling the Crusaders this weekend, but then not too many teams would be given much chance of stopping Scott Robertson’s men. Maybe the Lions can; many feel they’ve got the pack and the game best suited to do the job few others have managed to do.
Surprises do happen, and by just being in the final, the Lions have given themselves a chance of making history, something that seemed almost impossible just six years ago. The team were kicked out of the Super Rugby competition because they weren’t considered good enough to be a part of it. They were down in the dumps and there were not too many people out there who felt sorry for them; their record in the competition had been that poor.
But they got back into the competition in 2014 and two years later contested a first final; some turn-around. They did so again last year and now, in 2018, join an illustrious group of teams who’ve played in three straight finals. The famous Blues team did it between 1996 and 1998, the championship-winning Brumbies did it between 2000 and 2002 and the Crusaders did it twice, between 1998 and 2000 and between 2003 and 2006.
The Lions are now in that league and, win or lose this weekend, will forever be known as the team that played in three consecutive finals. It’s something the players and coaches will always be able to look back on and feel a sense of pride, and whether you agree with the format of the competition or not matters little; the Lions have only done what has been asked of them, and that’s win a lot of rugby games.
There is also little doubt the Lions have played some of the best rugby in the competition in the last three years; they’ve scored a ton of tries and several of their players have gone on to become Springboks. They have been the benchmark the other unions have looked to match, but come up short.
It is, however, now time that the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers came to the party. It is time the local derbies became closer, tighter contests where the outcome isn’t as predictable as it’s been in the last few years. Former Lions coach Johan Ackermann pointed out last week the SA teams needed to get closer to each other in terms of strength and talent for the Boks to be strong again, and to take on the All Blacks with confidence. And he is right.
The Crusaders might again have the edge in New Zealand, but contests between the five franchises are generally hard fought and tougher to call than the derby matches here. It is why the All Blacks are so strong; there’s a fierce rivalry and a competitiveness that sometimes seems to be lacking in our rugby.
Let’s hope that the 2019 Super Rugby season sees the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers really step up and put in a proper challenge. And let’s all get behind the Lions this weekend and hope they can pull off what would be one of the biggest shock wins in Super Rugby history. It’s just a pity they have to travel halfway round the world to play in the final; it’s not fair and not right, and a two-week break before the last game might well be the way to go in future. But that’s something to be discussed on another day.