JOHANNESBURG – Jaguares coach Mario Ledesma has backed the Lions to reach their third straight Super Rugby final, but feels no one will be able to stop the defending champions, the Crusaders, from going all the way again in 2018.
Ledesma, in his first season in charge of the men from Argentina, said the Lions would be too good for the Waratahs in their semi-final at Ellis Park this weekend, with the altitude factor weighing heavily against the visitors from Australia.
“Of course, altitude will be a big advantage for the Lions, who like to run every ball from anywhere on the field, at any time,” he said after his side lost 40-23 to the Lions in their quarter-final on Saturday. It was the Jaguares’ first appearance in the play-offs since they joined the competition three years ago.
He added that his team, too, had been undone by the altitude factor on Saturday. “The Lions didn’t have to work too hard to score their (first three) tries; we gave them away. We were too loose on the ball and weren’t clinical enough in that first half, but in the second we got to within four points and had our chances at 27-24.
“But, to come from behind, at altitude, is difficult.”
The Lions, after a slow start in that match on Saturday, made the most of a few gilt-edged chances to lead comfortably at the break, and then pull away late.
This weekend’s appearance in the last four will be the third straight home semi-final for the Lions. Ledesma said the Waratahs match would be a “challenge” for the Lions and one he’d keep an eye on.
“You can challenge them up front, but they’re one of the teams with the best backline players, guys who’ve got X-factor,” he said. “I’ll be watching.”
If the Lions win they will either face the Crusaders in a Christchurch final or host the Hurricanes at Ellis Park next weekend.
Ledesma, whose team won four in a row in Australasia earlier this year, including two games in New Zealand, said he couldn’t see anyone toppling the eight-time champions.
“We didn’t beat the Crusaders, so it’s not the same,” he said emphatically about his team getting the better of the Chiefs and Blues.
“The Crusaders shade other teams in their work rate and their defence; they’re better than any other team in the competition, even the other New Zealand teams. They’re happy to defend for 40 minutes and then the first chance they get they go and score. They’re really clinical, they’ve got a good set-piece; there are not many weak points ... so good luck, but you first have to beat the Waratahs.”
Saturday’s match kicks off at 3pm.