JOHANNESBURG - The defending champions, the Crusaders, are chasing a ninth Super Rugby title; the Lions, runners-up in the last two seasons, are hunting a first. Both teams possess star quality, players who have the ability to change the course of the game, make that defining break, tackle, kick or steal.
But more importantly it will be the performance of the various divisions that will determine who comes up trumps after 80 minutes. Here rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen analysis the key departments and how they match-up ahead of the 2018 final on Saturday (Kickoff: 9.35am).
The back three
The Lions have made a big call in going for Courtnall Skosan on the left wing ahead of Aphiwe Dyantyi - a player with real X-factor, but he hurt his hamstring last weekend and may not be 100% fit. It’s an all-Springbok back-three for the Lions, with Ruan Combrinck the man with the ability to do the unexpected, while the Crusaders’ back-three are lethal on the counter-attack and in space. It is in defence, and especially under the high ball, though where these men will mostly be tested and the Lions’ back three face a big test here.
Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe are the most under-rated partnership in SA rugby. They hardly put a foot wrong and score their fair share of tries, too. But their biggest challenge in Christchurch will be to keep Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue in check. The Crusaders centres have been a cut above the rest in the competition; they run hard and straight, and have the distribution skills of the best flyhalves in the game. They’re also strong defensively with Crotty in something of a league of his own.
CROSS-KICK | Who did it better, Richie Mo'unga or Elton Jantjies? Don't miss the battle of the 🔟 jersey in the #SuperRugby final. ⚔️🦁— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) August 1, 2018
⏰ 7.35pm, Saturday 4 August
🏟️ AMI Stadium, Christchurch
🏉 #CRUvLIO pic.twitter.com/GgUusb7yEI
The 9-10 combo
Richie Mo’unga enjoyed a fabulous semi-final outing, but so, too, did Elton Jantjies produce quality performances in the quarters and semi-final. It is away from home though, in what could be wet and cold conditions - similar to what the Lions experienced in Wellington in the 2016 final, that Jantjies must stand up and deliver. This is the Lions No 10’s big opportunity to shine. On his inside, Ross Cronje, too, has a big challenge - to make the right decision of when to run, kick and pass. Bryn Hall will keep him on his toes.
The back row
The Crusaders are missing a key man in Jordan Taufua, but the Lions have also had to do without Jaco Kriel this year. The good news is the powerhouse “stopper” Cyle Brink is fit and back in the No 7 jersey. Matt Todd’s breakdown battle with Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith will be telling, while the two No 8s are very much the inspirational figures in their teams. But Kieran Read and Warren Whiteley are also the key link-men who, if the conditions are good, will look to play as much as they can in space.
The tight five
If the Lions are to have a chance of causing a major upset their tight-five will have to function without fault. The positive news is their scrum has been a major weapon this season, but so, too, their lineout. The Lions have also scored more tries than any other team through the driving maul and must look to use it again. Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen face big tests against Joe Moody and Owen Franks, while Malcolm Marx will be key in every area for the Lions. Sam Whitelock’s lineout prowess will be crucial for his team.
Both teams pack a big punch from off the bench, with the Crusaders able to leave out veteran scrum guru, Wyatt Crocket, proof of his franchise’s depth at prop. Luke Romano and Pete Samu are experienced campaigners, while the backs reserves are players with pace and skill. The Lions’ Lourens Erasmus and Marnus Schoeman are potential game-changers, while Dyantyi is a player with real X-factor who could make a big difference late on; that is of course if the game isn’t done by the 60th minute.
I’d love the Lions to win the title, but their best chance came 12 months ago. They’ll battle hard tomorrow, they’ll give the Crusaders a few things to think about, but I simply cannot see them breaking down one of the best organised teams in rugby. The Lions might get a try or two, perhaps through their driving maul, but they won’t out-score their hosts for tries. The Crusaders have been the best team in the competition, by far, this year, and they’ll be the best team on the field at AMI Stadium. Crusaders by 20.