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The Hurricanes took out the 2016 final pretty much as everyone thought they would. An exceptional defensive effort that was already beyond 200 minutes without conceding a try was pushed almost to 300 minutes.
The Hurricanes had less possession and a smaller share of territory, but it didn’t matter. They played the conditions better and tackled themselves into the ground. Their rush defence stopped the Lions’ attack in its tracks, forcing errors and turnovers. By the end of the game it looked like they were doing it for fun.
20-3 was pretty comprehensive. On the few occasions the Lions had opportunities, they either made the wrong decision or turned the ball over. Or both.
Several of you mentioned that decision to shun three points in the first half and take the scrum option as being one of those ‘big moments’ I spoke of last week, both in these forums and on social media. And it did feel like a big moment from the moment Glenn Jackson signalled ‘scrum’. The Lions lost the scrum, the ‘Canes cleared out of their own 22, and the men from South Africa remained up against it for the rest of the game.
None of this should take away from what the Lions achieved in 2016. To come from not even playing Super Rugby in 2013 to be in the final just three seasons later – with largely the same coaching staff and playing group – is an extraordinary turnaround.
It’s very easy to say after the event that Johan Ackermann erred in not sending his first XV to Argentina in Round 17. ‘This game could’ve been at Ellis Park,’ they said. Ackermann himself acknowledged post-match that it will remain a topic of debate.
It’s not that simple, and the debate rarely considers the other factors at play in why the call was made.
Would the Lions first XV have won, or at least secured a bonus point in Buenos Aires? Maybe. They might’ve won comfortably; they might still have lost by 12.
But don’t forget that that same weekend, the Hurricanes started their extraordinary run of defence, and beat the Crusaders by 25 in Christchurch! That bonus point is what snuck the ‘Canes into top spot.
That unlikely result – 77 per cent of well over 400 Crowd votes that round were for the Crusaders – was as much a factor in the Lions final finishing result as Ackermann’s selection and player management decision.
Regardless, the Lions should be looking forward to next year, because they have another genuine chance to top the standings in 2017.
The group and conference format of Super Rugby means that the Lions’ Africa 2 conference will be paired with the Australian conference, avoidinh the New Zealand teams completely, just like the Stormers did this season.
If they can hold the playing group together – I’m only aware of Franco Mostert moving on currently – then they would have to start next season as one of the competition favourites.
But what may count against them is a forced change to the Super Rugby format. SANZAAR are said to be reviewing the format for 2018, and if there are to be changes to made, that is the time. It’s only fair that the current format sees out the full rotation before any recalibrations are made.
Africa 1 winners the Stormers were said to be the big winners of the conference setup in 2016, yet even their coach Robbie Fleck said that he wanted to face off against all the New Zealand teams before any changes are made.
“It’s got to run its course obviously and next year we will play the Kiwi sides in the same format,” Fleck said after his side qualified for the playoffs as the third seed.
“Certainly the ground feeling is there will be changes come 2018 … but we need to see how it goes next year when we do play the Kiwi sides.”
The curve ball in all this is a little closer to home for both the Stormers and Lions.
The Port Elizabeth-based EP Kings, the commercial arm of Eastern Province Rugby and holders of the Southern Kings’ licence to participate in Super Rugby, was last week liquidated with debts close to R60 million. They received a bailout over the weekend and survived a humiliating vote of the other unions, with the net result being that they will remain in the top tier of this year’s Currie Cup competition.
At this point, and though the Nelspruit-based Pumas are said to be rather interested in getting their hands on it, the South African rugby unions have said the Super Rugby licence will remain in Port Elizabeth under SARU control. But we all know things can change when it comes to rugby and politics in South Africa.
Whoever holds the licence, and wherever the sixth team resides, it’s imperative for the competition – and lucrative broadcast contracts, probably – that the format remains in its current form.
And the Lions will be sweating it.