And then there were two. After nearly six months of exhilarating (and sometimes tepid) rugby, it has finally boiled down to possibly the two best teams in the competition to slog it out in the final.
Honestly, any of the four combinations of the semi-finalists would have produced a mouth-watering final, but it is somewhat fitting to have the Lions and Hurricanes facing off in the showpiece.
The Lions have been head-and-shoulders above any team outside New Zealand, and among the Kiwi teams, it was a toss-up among any of the four finalists, with the Hurricanes having timed their run home to perfection, and thoroughly deserving the home final.
The Chiefs and Highlanders might feel a bit hard done by with the amount of travel they were made to do, but they won’t hide behind that excuse. On to 2017 then for them, and you can bet your house they’ll be challenging at the top end of the table again.
But let’s focus on our two finalists.
What a fascinating match-up this promises to be. The Hurricanes are taking part in their second consecutive final, and once again they’ll be at their home ground. Of course, last year the script was torn up by the men from the South Island, heaping more misery on Canes fans longing to finally put an end to their trophy drought. How they’d love to right the wrong of 2015.
And really there aren’t too many reasons to believe that they can’t do it. Like last season, they start as favourites, but unlike last year, they seem to be more focussed and determined to cross the finish line. In fact, they seem to be even more potent than last year, with dogged defence and clinical attack.
Will there be a mental block? I doubt it. There would have been real talk of nerves if they had the Highlanders again, but the spectre of last year’s result would have only served to bolster the Highlanders’ resolve than weaken the Hurricanes’ in case of a rematch.
And how fitting would it be that in the year that the gulf between the New Zealand conference and the rest of Super Rugby has seemingly become the widest that the one remaining New Zealand team to win the competition ends their drought.
Among the other subplots regarding the Canes are how star flyhalf Beauden Barrett can finally cap off his annus mirabilis with a fine showing in the final, something he failed to do last year. Hooker Dane Coles missed the semi-final with an injury and could well miss the final, but in his stead young South African-born Ricky Riccitelli will be aiming to repeat his heroics from the semifinal victory.
This has been a real coming-of-age season for Ardie Savea, and while his brother’s stock may have fallen, the former is shaping to be the real leader of the Hurricanes pack. Halfback TJ Perenara is looking to cement his role as the back-up All Black number 9. And despite losing almost an eternity of experience in centres Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith after their departures at the end of last season, the Hurricanes have still managed to put together a backline that makes up for its lack of star power with heart and grit.
Speaking of lack of star power, what about the other team in the final? The Lions were not even taking part in Super Rugby in 2013, and only took their place in the 2014 edition after winning a two-legged playoff against the Southern Kings.
For much of the history of the competition they were the cellar dwellers, but from last season they started showing signs that something great was happening under the tutelage of Johan Ackermann, winning more games than they lost for the first time since 2001. They missed out on the finals last year, but this season they have shown without doubt that they are the real deal.
People say that the Lions are a New Zealand team playing in the guise of a South African one, but I believe that it’s quite the opposite – this is a South African team playing in the guise of a New Zealand one (this analogy might not make sense but hear me out here).
The core ideals of this team are stereotypically South African – a strong set piece, kickers with big boots, just incredibly big forwards (and backs too), and strong runners. The only difference is that they are not afraid at all to throw the ball wide, and actually have the skillset (and execution) to tear you apart from deep. It’s this brand of exciting rugby that has made the Lions such a breath of fresh air from the Republic, and made them most neutrals’ favourites.
While other South African sides now, and in the recent past, have been too regimented and one-dimensional, the Lions have been smart, or at least, not brain-dead. I guess that much is enough, too bad most South African teams don’t even seem to fulfil that basic criterion.
There was a time in the game against the Crusaders in the first half that they started to fall prey to that same malaise, kicking the ball back, and quite poorly to the Crusaders whenever they got it. It put them under huge pressure and ultimately resulted in Ryan Crotty’s try. At this point, it seemed the Crusaders could just rumble on and win the match, but the Lions stepped back, saw how their tactics were failing, and reverted to what they knew best – direct, ball-in-hand, attacking rugby. The final score was a just reward.
They too have their own interesting subplots – Faf De Klerk and Elton Jantjies have had a spectacular season, and the final will be an enthralling duel between two of the best halves pairings in the competition.
For Jantjies it will be a massive game, as he has well and truly resurrected his career after a couple of years in the wilderness. He will look to prove that he has the mettle to step up in big games, something people still hold doubts about despite his magnificent performances against the Crusaders and the Highlanders. Another massive performance in the final will go a long way to assuaging the fears of many Springbok supporters as to whether he can similarly step up for the national team, after a largely indifferent series against Ireland.
The Springboks also loom large over this year’s final. It’s the first time since 2012 that a South African team has reached the final, and after a period in which South African rugby has probably reached its lowest ebb, the Lions are a beacon of hope as to what can be achieved with the right structures and players in place. A victory will be a victory for South African rugby as a whole, something to celebrate after the repeated lows of the past two years or so.
The question then becomes, just how many Lions are too many? Against Ireland the Springboks handed debuts to De Klerk, Lionel Mapoe, Franco Mostert, Julian Redelinghuys and Ruan Combrinck, while also recalling Warren Whiteley and Jantjies. Jantjies and Mapoe did not really shine, but the others were largely responsible for ensuring the Boks didn’t slip to an embarrassing series defeat. And after the performances of the Lions after the June break, it seems that more Lions could (and should) be called up – especially hooker Malcolm Marx and centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Of course, as many South African fans on The Roar have pointed out, the Springboks aren’t the Lions. Coach Allister Coetzee plays a distinctly different style of rugby to the Lions, and he doesn’t seem too keen to change it anytime soon. Maybe that is why the some of the Lions players didn’t perform so well in June. And one can’t forget that Coetzee is somewhat hamstrung by the quotas.
The final big story ahead of the decider is the Argentinian gamble. The Jaguares will be a talking point before the final, although not for the reasons they would have wanted. Ackermann’s decision to rest all his main players for the final-round fixture in Buenos Aires means the Lions have to travel to the New Zealand capital for the final, after the Jaguares, despite their best efforts in the first half not to, beat the Lions to consign them to second place.
Just how much of a difference would a home final have made for the Lions? Quite obviously a big one. While the Lions have won once in New Zealand already this year, they are a far different beast at altitude in Johannesburg. They would have been firm favourites for the final had it been at Ellis Park instead of the Cake Tin.
But then again, had they finished top of the standings then they would have had a different draw. The Sharks were woeful this season, so we can assume they would have been dispatched, but then the semi-final would have been against the Chiefs (as it turned out), who would already have been in the Republic, as opposed to the globetrotting Highlanders.
Who knows what would have happened, all that we know and can work with is that the Lions have to become the first team from overseas to win a finals match in New Zealand if they have to win the title – and what better occasion to do so than the final itself!
The match promises to be a humdinger, with the Hurricanes slight favourites based on the home advantage and their defensive performance in the semis. They will look to ensure that the Lions do not get behind them out wide, and to Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara to ensure that they win the kicking game – I suspect they will target Courtnall Skosan’s wing more than Ruan Combrinck’s.
The Lions will be assertive in the set piece and use their large ball-carriers to win the battle of the gainline.
All in all, whoever wins will be worthy champions.
Let’s just hope the rain stays away.