The Lions and Crusaders will take some beating from here

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    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.

    Lions coach Johan Ackermann

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    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.

    Crusaders Israel Dagg runs after the ball

    (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

    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.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (84)

    • May 16th 2017 @ 4:59am
      P2R2 said | May 16th 2017 @ 4:59am | ! Report

      I am not so sure with your assertion that the Lions will win in Durban against the Sharks…..you can bet your house the Sharks will throw everything at them in a home game – I foresee lots of injuries in that game….and the Lions to lose…

      • Columnist

        May 16th 2017 @ 10:48am
        Brett McKay said | May 16th 2017 @ 10:48am | ! Report

        I think the Sharks will need to throw everything at the Lions, P2…

      • May 16th 2017 @ 11:17am
        BBA said | May 16th 2017 @ 11:17am | ! Report

        I think it will depend on whether the Sharks have anything to play for. If both teams have qualified and the Sharks cant finish higher than 8th I don’t think they will thro everything in it if they have to play the Lions again.

        In fact one of the quirks may mean beating the Lions means they then have to play in NZ, and losing could mean playing in SA. You could find an Ackerman like selected team for this game.

        • May 16th 2017 @ 12:19pm
          P2R2 said | May 16th 2017 @ 12:19pm | ! Report

          if what you say is true…then SA rugby is well and truly lost…the LIONS sent a 2 or 3 rate team to Buenos Aires and lost…they could have had the HOME FINAL….they missed out big time….and if the SHARKS employ similar logic and tactics then SA rugby will be consigned to history….but I don’t think so, it would be like the REDS taking it easy against the TAHS – it would never happen, you play to win and that should be the paramount goal..

        • Roar Guru

          May 16th 2017 @ 4:40pm
          Ralph said | May 16th 2017 @ 4:40pm | ! Report

          Any time you are talking about a battle between Sharks and Lions I always think that unless it’s in water the Lions will come away with the win.

      • Roar Guru

        May 16th 2017 @ 1:03pm
        Charging Rhino said | May 16th 2017 @ 1:03pm | ! Report

        I agree P2R2… The Sharks are going to throw the kitchen sink at them at home in Durban. The Sharks- Lions Joburg win was only achieved by the Lions right at the very very end of the game. The Sharks know they can beat them, the question is whether the turn up and do it.

        The Sharks want to finish 5th or 6th, to ensure a game against either the Brumbies or Stormers. 7th or 8th means either the Crusaders or Lions. They’ve been sent back home too many times for a finals game in NZ. It’s hard to see a repeat of the 2014 win in Christchurch (with only 13 men) against the Crusaders.

    • Roar Guru

      May 16th 2017 @ 5:29am
      taylorman said | May 16th 2017 @ 5:29am | ! Report

      I think the title has a double play on the word Beating depending on which Lions team you mean Brett?

      • Columnist

        May 16th 2017 @ 10:23am
        Brett McKay said | May 16th 2017 @ 10:23am | ! Report

        Ha, purely unintentional TM. But you do make a good point..

    • May 16th 2017 @ 6:05am
      Baylion said | May 16th 2017 @ 6:05am | ! Report

      Excellent article Brett.

      I have said it before, without proof or confirmation, that I felt at times through the season that the Lions put themselves under pressure on purpose in order to prepare for the play-off games, the second half against the Kings an ideal example. They ran away with the first half and then went “off the boil” during the second half where they spent most of the time on defence.

      The Brumbies lost 6 of their 7 losses by less than 7 points, mostly in low scoring matches. The Brumbies game was an ideal game for the Lions this late in the season to play a full-on defensive game, given how tough the Brumbies are to score against without being a major attacking threat. The Lions started their second choice front row, putting pressure on their backs and giving them little front foot ball to attack from.

      Just my impression

      • May 16th 2017 @ 9:00am
        BBA said | May 16th 2017 @ 9:00am | ! Report

        You could be right Bay, I definitely think Ackermann likes to test his players and wants to develop more than just a strong 15 or even 23 but a full squad. Last year it was noticeable that once they lost their top front row they struggled against the Kiwi sides (Crusaders and Hurricanes at home). This was off course addressed when it came to play off time.

        Accordingly I do think Ackermann wants to develop his back up players and make sure that it is not a weakness come business time in the season. I do think because of what happened in the final last year the Lions will be very motivated to go one better this year, however not playing so many hard games as other teams has its pluses and minuses. yes they should be mentally and physically fitter, however they are not so match hardened. It is quite possible that if they finish top (still the most likely as I don’t think the Crusaders will go through unbeaten in the last 4 games) that they will play the Sharks, which I think would have to there preference for play off finalist.

        There is no doubt (and this is true of all the play off teams) that the first game in the playoffs you are probably the most vulnerable to the intensity step up. (I don’t think, if it is the Brumbies , that playing them in July in Canberra, is easy for any team).

      • May 16th 2017 @ 1:52pm
        Akari said | May 16th 2017 @ 1:52pm | ! Report

        I saw nothing of the sort, Baylion. The Lions turned up to win but really struggled to beat a struggling and hopeless Brumbies team.

        • Roar Guru

          May 16th 2017 @ 1:57pm
          Fionn said | May 16th 2017 @ 1:57pm | ! Report

          We were so incompetent. We could have replaced Hawera, Godwin and Toua with the Three Stooges and we would have been more potent in attack.

          • May 16th 2017 @ 2:34pm
            Akari said | May 16th 2017 @ 2:34pm | ! Report

            My thoughts exactly, Fionn

        • May 16th 2017 @ 6:21pm
          Baylion said | May 16th 2017 @ 6:21pm | ! Report

          Sorry, my comment on the Brumbies game was a separate thought although I think the fact that it was such a tight game worked out well for the Lions preparation going forward. The Brumbies has fought a number of close losses so far, including against the Kiwi sides, with only the loss against the Canes being a blow-out.

    • Roar Guru

      May 16th 2017 @ 6:24am
      Fox said | May 16th 2017 @ 6:24am | ! Report

      NIce article Brett and I sort of agree except that the Lions don’t play any kiwi sides until the finals and that could count against them. I see them making the semis for that reason.

    • Roar Guru

      May 16th 2017 @ 6:24am
      Fox said | May 16th 2017 @ 6:24am | ! Report

      NIce article Brett and I sort of agree except that the Lions don’t play any kiwi sides until the finals and that could count against them. I see them making the semis for that reason.

      • Columnist

        May 16th 2017 @ 10:30am
        Brett McKay said | May 16th 2017 @ 10:30am | ! Report

        Only if you accept that the Crusaders not facing South Africa sides will similarly count against them, Fox.

        As it happens, I think the Lions’ draw will work heavily in their favour, especially if the Crusaders do happen to drop a game or two on their run home. if the Lions finish top overall, they’ll hold even more of an advantage, and not playing against the NZ sides won’t hurt their cause at all..

        • Roar Guru

          May 16th 2017 @ 7:52pm
          Fox said | May 16th 2017 @ 7:52pm | ! Report

          Yep you make a good point Brett. They will be hard to beat at home and especially with the tactical blunder they made in Argentina last year. But I’m with you in that the Crusaders might go into the finals unbeaten and the have played the Stormers, Bulls and Cheetahs this season so that has to count in their favor.

          So could we say the Championship might come down to a kiwi side ( can’t see anyone else doing it) beating the Crusaders in the run in?

          Gee that means every Crusaders and Lions game (like you I can’t see them losing before the finals to be honest) might decide the winner based on home ground final advantage?

          I will say one thing though – I would back the Crusaders to beat the Lions away in a final more so than the other way round and especially since they have been winning without Dagg, Read for a while now, and Whitelock in the last two games.

          And something tells me Beauden Barrett and a returning Dane Coles might have something to say about all this just quietly…hmmm…interesting times ahead – and then there is the June window injury toll!!! -yikes

          Hey maybe the Dark Horse, and on the rise Blues, might put egg on all our faces Brett…Tana has them getting better every week and what do we say about peaking at the right time?

    • Roar Guru

      May 16th 2017 @ 6:29am
      biltongbek said | May 16th 2017 @ 6:29am | ! Report

      It would be nice if the Lions went against all odds and doubts and win the tournament, even if only to rain on Gregor Paul’s and his followers parades.

      • May 16th 2017 @ 8:22am
        WQ said | May 16th 2017 @ 8:22am | ! Report

        Not sure what Odds and doubts there are biltongbek, if they get the final in South Africa they’ll win.
        Only real doubts surround where the final will be held?

        • Roar Guru

          May 16th 2017 @ 2:40pm
          biltongbek said | May 16th 2017 @ 2:40pm | ! Report

          Then you must have missed the rumblings about what an injustice it would be if the Lions won, or the “doubters” questioning the class of the Lions?

          Personally I don’t care who wins this convoluted mess of a tournament, but if it sticks one up to Gregor Paul, then go Lions!

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