JOHANNESBURG - It’s almost Super Rugby final time and for Warren Whiteley and his charges, the match in Christchurch against the Crusaders on Saturday is an opportunity to make history and finally bag the title after losing the deciders in 2016 and 2017.
Here rugby writer Jacques van der Westhuyzen lists the 10 factors he believes will play a key part in determining whether the Lions are able to pull off a surprise win or whether the home team will make it title triumph number nine.
In the 2016 final in Wellington, the Lions were literally blown off the park, so strong was the wind that evening. It was also freezing cold. If conditions are the same this Saturday, the Lions will again be up against it... or will they? Many feel if it’s cold and wet, the Lions might have their best chance of winning, what with their strong set-piece and rolling maul. Either way, the weather could be a factor.
The standard of refereeing this season has been widely questioned, but in Australian Gardner, Sanzaar have got the best man for the job. Rugby’s laws, though, mean much is left to interpretation and how the referee sees things, and there are always grey areas. Gardener will be under huge pressure to get things right; maybe more so now that Lions coach Swys de Bruin has asked for “a fair deal”.
Crusaders' home record
The home team and defending champions haven’t lost a finals match at home in 20 outings. They’ve lost twice on home soil in round-robin action in the last three years, and that was in 2016. Few teams have rattled the Crusaders at Rugby League Park, a small, intimate ground made of scaffolding and steel. But, as De Bruin pointed out, someone’s going to have to end that record run, so why not this weekend?
The first 20 minutes
The Lions have been caught napping in the early stages of several of their matches, often going behind before they’ve properly got going. It happened in the quarter-finals and semi-finals in the last fortnight, but they hit back to win both those matches comfortably. They won’t be able to fall behind by 10-20 points this weekend. If the Lions are to have a chance, they need to start well and be in the contest at halftime.
The Lions' forwards
De Bruin’s team are coming up against an All Black-laden pack in the Crusaders, but if there is one team that could cause them a few problems it is the Lions. They’re a powerful scrumming unit, they’re seriously competitive in the lineouts and no one has a better driving maul than theirs; it’s a formidable front eight the Crusaders will be up against. The tighter the Lions keep things on Saturday, the better their chances.
Both Elton Jantjies and Crusaders No 10 Richie Mo’unga have huge roles to play. But it is the Lions No 10 who has to star if his team are to come out on top. He goes into the game in fine form, but how will he go in unfamiliar surroundings, how will the weather affect his performance, and how well will he be protected by his forwards? Jantjies’ line-kicking and goal-kicking will also be crucial ... this is his time to shine.
CROSS-KICK | Who did it better, Richie Mo'unga or Elton Jantjies? Don't miss the battle of the 🔟 jersey in the #SuperRugby final. ⚔️🦁
⏰ 7.35pm, Saturday 4 August
🏟️ AMI Stadium, Christchurch
🏉 #CRUvLIO pic.twitter.com/GgUusb7yEI
Defence - by both teams
Both teams have scored freely this year, matching each other with 77 tries in their 16-game regular season. But the Crusaders, by some margin, have been the stingiest team defensively, letting in just 39 tries. The Lions let in 55 in their regular season, and will have to be far sharper and more clinical in defence this weekend if they are to stop the excellent back division of their hosts. Who defends best will win the final.
It goes without saying really that the best disciplined team will have the easier ride over the 80 minutes. Red cards are a no-no - just ask the Lions, who played with 14 men for over 40 minutes in last year’s final at Ellis Park, and lost - and so too must yellow cards be avoided. Maintaining good discipline at the scrums and rucks, and staying on-side will be crucial. The Lions are fortunately, generally a well-behaved outfit.
Bulls coach John Mitchell believes you can only win Super Rugby if you have several world-class players in your team. And he’d be right. It’s maybe why the Lions haven’t yet won the title. But in Marx, they have a world-class player who needs to deliver a world-class performance on Saturday. The Lions hooker will again be key and if he’s on song as carrier, stealer, line-out thrower et al, the Lions might just get an edge.
A big pot of luck
Finally, for the Lions to triumph and do the unthinkable, almost impossible, everything has to go their way in the 80 minutes. They have to get the 50/50 refereeing calls going their way, the loose balls must bounce their way, their star players must have the one-off magical performances, and the Crusaders’ star men must have an off-day. The stars will have to align and everything will have to fall into place ... oh, and they’ll also need some luck too. Maybe a whole lot of it.