The Wrap: Lions transformation sets up epic Super Rugby final

Geoff Parkes Columnist

By , Geoff Parkes is a Roar Expert

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    Lions coach Johan Ackermann is now only 80 minutes away from fulfilling his dream of departing from Johannesburg with a Super Rugby title, after his side stunned the Hurricanes with 42 minutes of irresistible power rugby, turning a 22-3 deficit into a runaway 44-29 victory.

    Despite only dropping one game in pool play this season, the Lions have struggled to reach the giddy heights of their 2016 performances, and they were extremely fortunate to scrape through their preliminary final last week against the Sharks. But, to the Hurricanes’ cost, it all came together in one half of magic rugby in this semi-final, suggesting that Ackermann has timed his run perfectly.

    It is difficult to recall a rugby team so dominant in one half of rugby, so rapidly converted to road kill in the second, as the Hurricanes were. Captain Dane Coles recognised post-match that rugby is a momentum game and how, once this was conceded to the Lions, they were quickly and brutally shut out of a match that most viewers had already conceded was theirs.

    A scoring run of 41-7 speaks to Lions’ utter dominance, confidence visibly spreading throughout the side and feeding into a crowd that was transformed from deathly silent in the first half to singing loudly by the end.

    The Hurricanes fell away badly but their post-mortem will pinpoint looseness and a lack of clinical finishing precision in the first half. Despite looking the goods at 22-3, their lead should have been over 30 points, handling errors and a lack of composure costing them what turned out to be valuable points.

    Perhaps this was one of those times when everything was coming to them too easily. By the time the Hurricanes realised they were actually in a fight, the Lions had shaken off their lethargy and rumbled through the gears. Their forwards were noticeably more abrasive and it was now Ruan Combrink pulling off the party tricks that Nehe Milner-Skudder had been performing in the first half.

    The Hurricanes haven’t convinced at set-piece time all year, and it was here where the Lions’ resurgence was grounded, tries coming off the back of a strong line-out maul, and penalties (and field position) courtesy of a dominant scrum. Franco Mostert confirmed his rise into the top echelon of South African locks, prop Jacques Van Rooyen was a dominant figure, and sevens champ Kwagga Smith has an incredible knack of always being in the play.

    The Hurricanes’ best were loose forwards Ardie Savea and Brad Shields but, as a whole, their forward unit was overwhelmed when the heat went on. The visitors also suffered when Beauden Barrett was shown a yellow card, leaking 17 points in those ten minutes. Barrett has had his troubles with officialdom this year, but in this case Jaco Peyper was extremely harsh on a player doing exactly what he is supposed to do – roll away from the tackle.

    Lions coach Johan Ackermann

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    That it is the Crusaders who will be the Lions’ finals opponent will surprise no-one, although the manner of their victory in Christchurch was an eye-opener, the Chiefs dominating most of the statistical measures and the run of play yet still losing convincingly, 27-13.

    The Chiefs threw two kitchen sinks at the Crusaders and were worthy contributors to an open, willing match that belied the heavy underfoot conditions. The match also benefited from a relaxed performance from referee Glen Jackson, who recognised that he had two teams who were keen to play football and that his best contribution would be to stand back and let them get on with it.

    Defence is equal parts organisation and structure, attitude and execution, and it was here where this match was won. Forced to make an incredible 185 tackles compared to 66 from the Chiefs, the Crusaders showed how it is one thing to maintain a disciplined, straight defensive line, but another thing to execute those tackles and to keep doing so without infringing.

    The heavy ground and huge workload will take a physical and mental toll, but assuming they recover and aren’t knocked around by the travel, the Crusaders will take great confidence from this effort into the final. They will need to, of course; the Lions have rediscovered their attacking mojo and will be keen to apply intense pressure over the whole match, not just half.

    What sets the Crusaders apart from the other New Zealand teams this year is their composure, starkly demonstrated by their ability to keep accumulating points despite the Chiefs dominating territory and possession.

    Their opening to try to halfback Bryn Hall was a cracker, with telling incisions by Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg; quality players executing superbly and making good decisions under pressure.

    The Crusaders also never lost their hunger or desire throughout, typified by Richie Mo’unga interrupting James Lowe’s clearing kick, forcing the ball loose, presenting the deciding try to Dagg.

    israel-dagg-crusaders-super-rugby-union-2017

    (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

    Clearly, the Crusaders have taken plenty from their loss to the British and Irish Lions, developing a more ruthless edge to their game where errors are kept to a minimum and opportunities presented to the opposition – no matter how well they are playing – are few.

    The Chiefs will rightly feel that they played well, and bow out with their heads held high. They were unluckily denied a try in the first half, TMO Glenn Newman intervening to determine that Tim Nanai-Williams failed to maintain control of the ball when diving over.

    Sky Television comments man Justin Marshall justified the decision on the basis that “the technology is there and when it (the vision) is slowed down it shows something different,” but co-captain Aaron Cruden was right to state afterwards that this was “a try every day of the week”, and question whether this is a path that rugby should be heading down.

    Welcome to the murky world of the NRL and the NRC bunker, where pedants delight in separating frames until they inevitably find one that shows minute separation between hand and ball.

    The loss marks Cruden’s final match in New Zealand, along with teammates James Lowe and Tawera Kerr-Barlow. While there is always young talent following behind, anybody who thinks that New Zealand rugby can continue to lose players of this calibre – not to mention the IP of coaches Dave Rennie and Keiran Kane – and not suffer consequences in the future needs to think again.

    One discussion point that can’t be avoided is the size of the crowds; just under 28,000 at Johannesburg and not even half that in Christchurch. Forget talk about how cold it was; these are hardy Christchurch folk we are talking about, people who have undergone far worse than the onset of a heavy frost.

    When the Crusaders, playing a good and consistent brand of winning rugby, can’t draw a decent home crowd – to a final no less – then something is seriously wrong. Have people really become so blasé? Or is the stench of Super Rugby now so bad it permeates even the bastion that is Christchurch and its admiration for their team, the most successful in Super Rugby history?

    Mitchell Drummond Crusaders Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

    SANZAAR have an acute problem on their hands. Even if the ARU resolves its current mess and confirms a reduction to four franchises – and there is nothing to suggest this is imminent – the brand is now so tainted that any window dressing to revert to a 15-team competition may be pointless.

    Fans have voted with their feet, their wallets and their remote controls. They want a truly competitive competition, one that is overtly ‘fair’ for all teams, and which rewards teams on the basis of results, not geographic location.

    They care not that SANZAAR’s hands are tied by the broadcasters who pay for the competition, and seem prepared to ride the death wish that is the price of their engagement; a competition on the fans’ terms or not at all.

    Of course, New Zealand fans want to keep winning against Australia, but only after a genuine struggle, not continued walkovers. Australian fans just want a win. South African fans also want to win, but increasingly like the idea of doing so in Dublin instead of Hamilton.

    Once fans are lost it is a very difficult exercise to win them back. It is a puzzle that SANZAAR urgently needs to find an answer to, and while the imminent announcement of the PRO 12 expansion will provide some clarity, SANZAAR might well have less time to get its house in order than it thinks; particularly if the Wallabies find new depths to plumb in the upcoming Bledisloe Cup matches.

    In the meantime, for those of us still with the program, a fascinating and compelling final awaits next weekend. Both the Lions and the Crusaders will make worthy winners, and there is every expectation that fans will be treated to a classic final.

    Will the outcome see the innovative, humble Ackermann head to Gloucester with all his business completed, or will the younger upstart Scott Robertson clear space on the Ellis Park turf to breakdance in celebration of a famous Crusaders victory?

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