It was hard not to be impressed with what the Lions and Crusaders served up this weekend just gone. It’s seriously starting to feel like the Super Rugby final will have a very red and black feel about it in 2017.
The Crusaders have been the dominant team in 2017. I wasn’t sure about them at the start of the season, and I’ve expected them to drop a game several times by now, but here they are, eleven-and-zip, and I’m certainly not silly enough to suggest they will definitely lose a game between now and the Final on August 5.
Friday’s Suva Showdown with the Chiefs is their next big test, and if they win that, they will quite likely secure the New Zealand conference. After that, and though they’re playing a whole lot better than they were, I can’t see the Melbourne Rebels troubling the Crusaders, and then the Highlanders and Hurricanes come after the June Tests. A 15-0 record is not at all out of reach for the regular season.
The British and Irish Lions in Christchurch on June 10 might represent their biggest hurdle to an unbeaten season!
The Lions, meanwhile, have so far done exactly what I expected of them for 2017; dropped a game that they really shouldn’t have, showing themselves otherwise to be too good for most teams and a genuine title contender.
They can put the feet up back in Johannesburg this week with the bye, and then have twin Ellis Park games against the Bulls and Lions before the June recess before finishing the rounds with the Sunwolves at home, and the Sharks in Durban. Anyone see them dropping a game there? Nope, me neither.
The most impressive aspect of the Lions’ win over the Brumbies in Canberra, and the Crusaders hard-fought win over the Hurricanes was the manner in which both sides won.
Both recognised that they were coming up against formidable sides – the Brumbies still one of the better defensive sides this season, and the Hurricanes dangerous against any opposition – and that the best way to win their game was to ignore their instincts for long periods of time, and instead play the very pragmatic rugby that the situation required of them.
The Lions knew that the Brumbies’ attack has stagnated in recent games, and that as long as their defensive line held, they just had to take their own opportunities as they arose and find points whenever offered. As it turned out, the first points on offer and their one and only real opportunity came within a few minutes of each other in the second half, and they were good enough to hold a lead from there.
So the Lions left the driver in the bag; a saying trotted out from time to time by much longer-hitting golfers than me. As much as you might want to play on the front foot and attack all game, sometimes you just have to do what you need to do in order to get the win.
The Lions very happily conceded the territory and possession advantage. The official stats say that 63.5 per cent of the game was played in the Lions’ half, and in their 22 for a bit over twenty minutes in total. Yet apart from the early disallowed try, the Brumbies never really spent huge periods with the tryline within arm’s reach.
The Lions made 54 more tackles and created twice as many turnovers. They kicked more and won more scrums, despite only achieving parity in this area toward the end of the game. They carried the ball far less than the Brumbies (but made about the same ground per carry), passed about half as much, and offloaded even less than that. They didn’t beat as many defenders, nor make anywhere near as many clean breaks.
But when they did have the ball, the Brumbies had to work incredibly hard to recover possession. The Lions’ trio of backrowers – ‘Kwagga’ Smith, Ruan Ackermann, and skipper Warren Whiteley – were enormous in defence and at the breakdown, and especially at the attacking breakdown. Whiteley cleans out defenders like no Australian forward has come close to in 2017, and his ability to turn a potentially isolated winger on kick-return into a comfortably-won attacking ruck was truly remarkable.
I did wonder earlier in the season if they might miss no.12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg when he went down, but Harold Vorster has come into the side and fit into that midfield enforcer role seamlessly. Ditto Smith at openside in place of Jaco Kriel, for that matter.
They’re such a smart side, the Lions. They take whatever punishment the opposition can dish up, and they can know when to flick the attack switch, or when to conserve their energy. It was a genuine privilege to watch them from just a few metres away on the sideline on Friday night.
The Crusaders, similarly, worked out that the best way to close down the Hurricanes was to take away all their space, and to essentially keep them on their side of halfway.
The Crusaders held a small territory advantage at halftime and extended that after the break, all the while maintaining reasonably equal possession and attack stats. They didn’t have to make as many tackles as the Hurricanes, but did enough to keep the breakdown numbers relatively even, too.
Despite conceding significantly more turnovers, the Crusaders’ pressure and defence held such that the Hurricanes were never really able to turn them into attacking opportunities. And with that difficult task achieved the Crusaders just played the smarter game to secure the win.
For two sides who’ve dazzled at times this season with ball in hand, it was quite fascinating to see both the Lions and the Crusaders win games through their defence and breakdown pressure. Of course, that pressure has been there all season, but that’s been easily outshone by their very impressive attack.
With the playoffs now not that far away, it’s notable that a couple of the competition favourites are already showing they’ve already got the knockout football gameplan locked and loaded.