The finale of the Super Rugby season is upon us. Four conferences have battled it out in a flurry of intercontinental travel and match-ups and now, there are just two teams remaining.
The Crusaders have travelled to Johannesburg to play the Lions in one of the most intriguing finals to date. But who’s going to win?
The Lions staged a remarkable comeback after being down 22-3 against the Hurricanes. Jacques van Rooyen crossed for the home side just before half time to keep his team within reach after enduring an early onslaught from the dangerous New Zealand side.
They returned to the field after the break to eclipse their opposition in a dominant second half. Five second-half tries scored by the South African side blew the final score out to 44-29.
The Crusaders kept their strong season running with a clinical performance against a valiant Chiefs team. The men from Canterbury scored four tries while keeping their opposition from crossing the line until the 77th minute, but by that stage, the result had already been confirmed.
With the quality of defence the key point of difference between the two teams, the Crusaders battled to a 27-13 final score. They will play in their 12th final and hope to become champions for the first time since 2008.
It seems fitting that the two sides with the best records now face each other in the final. The Super Rugby format, despite its shortcomings, has been very entertaining, even from an Australian rugby fan’s perspective.
The Lions have dominated the attack statistics going into the final fixture of the year. They have posted the most metres gained, 9718, most defenders beaten, 446, most carries, 2095 and most passes made, 2708, by any team in the competition. They are an attacking team, and an extremely successful one at that, scoring 90 tries so far this season.
They are also hoping to wipe any lingering memories from their defeat in the final last year, and after toppling the Hurricanes last weekend, the first step in that process is complete.
The Crusaders, despite being the most successful Super Rugby team in history, have not won a grand final since 2008. In 2014, they fell agonisingly short, beaten by the Waratahs 33-32.
Since their last title, the Crusaders have made it to the finals seven times without success while enduring three of their fellow New Zealand clubs winning the Super Rugby championship.
Defence has played a large part of their near-unbeaten Super Rugby season. Tith an 85 per cent tackle success rate, plus a 96 per cent ruck success rate, the Crusaders are clinical, experienced and very good at what they do. Not to be outdone with the ball though, they have scored 83 tries this season along with 210 clean line breaks.
Interestingly, the last time these two teams met was in last year’s quarter-final, where the Lions continued their strong run to the decider, easily taking care of the Crusaders 42-25.
Elton Jantjies (Lions)
It’s hard to look past Jantjies for a player who can have such a large effect on the game. The Springboks fly-half was near perfect with the boot against the Hurricanes, hitting four conversions and two penalties.
The ability to steer his side to victory after his form dwindled late in the season was impressive, even more so with the absence of Lions captain Warren Whitely.
While Jantjies’ defence is questionable (he’s missed 32 tackles this season), his attacking and kicking prowess unlocks the Lions’ dangerous attacking backline. Look for a spark from him late in the game.
Kieran Read (Crusaders)
The All Black captain has overcome injury concerns earlier this year to anchor the strong Crusader forward pack through the last weeks of the competition. After leaving the field with a knee injury in the final minutes of the game against the Chiefs, Read has been confirmed to play in the final.
The number eight continues to prove that he is the complete package by providing reliable defence and strong attack. Read has made 35 tackles while missing just five, and he has also run in for three tries from 47 carries.
Experience is the key area of benefit in Read’s case. Having captained the All Blacks through a momentous British and Irish Lions tour, Read is all too familiar with the pressures of performing when it matters most.
Andries Coetzee (Lions)
The Lions fullback will continue his attacking play in familiar home-ground conditions. The utility back has made 1323 metres with the ball this season, the third most for the competition behind Damien Mckenzie and James Lowe for the Chiefs.
Coetzee’s clearance kicks will be a key attribute to his game in the grand final. He has made 66 kicks in play this season and will likely keep the Crusaders’ from settling with good attacking territory.
David Havili (Crusaders)
Havili makes up one-third of a very dangerous back three for the Crusaders. The entertaining fullback will link up with Israel Dagg and Seta Tamanivalu on the wings and be hoping to continue their incredible attacking form.
While the Crusaders’ true strength lies within the forward pack, Havili has had a standout season playing for the Crusaders. He has beaten 59 defenders off 168 carries in 2017. He has also made 1150 metres with the ball and scored eight tries.
While Dagg and Tamanivalu showed their try scoring capabilities against the Chiefs last weekend, look for Havili in support, or making metres in broken play.
|Jacques Van Rooyen||1||Joe Moody|
|Malcolm Marx||2||Codie Taylor|
|Ruan Dreyer||3||Owen Franks|
|Andries Ferreira||4||Scott Barrett|
|Franco Mostert||5||Sam Whitelock|
|Jaco Kriel||6||Jordan Taufua|
|Kwagga Smith||7||Matt Todd|
|Ruan Ackermann||8||Kieran Read|
|Ross Cronje||9||Bryn Hall|
|Elton Jantjies||10||Richie Mo’unga|
|Courtnall Skosan||11||Seta Tamanivalu|
|Harold Vorster||12||Ryan Crotty|
|Lionel Mapoe||13||Jack Goodhue|
|Ruan Combrinck||14||Israel Dagg|
|Andries Coetzee||15||David Kaetau Havili|
|Armand van der Merwe||16||Ben Funnell|
|Corne Fourie||17||Wyatt Crockett|
|Johannes Jonker||18||Michael Alaalatoa|
|Lourens Erasmus||19||Luke Romano|
|Cyle Brink||20||Peter Samu|
|Francois de Klerk||21||Mitchell Drummond|
|Rohan Janse van Rensburg||22||Mitch Hunt|
|Sylvian Mahuza||23||George Bridge|
|Coach: Johann Ackermann||Coach: Scott Robertson|
This season I have been guilty of underestimating the Lions, who have undoubtedly proven themselves as serious contenders once again this year.
Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg has become a true fortress. Since the Springbok World Cup victory there in 1995, the stadium has been a true rugby icon, and presumably an extremely daunting venue for visiting teams.
Fortunately for the Lions, this stadium is their home ground.
No doubt the raucous, 60,000-strong crowd will play a large role in the outcome of this game, and may ultimately prove the difference between two sides.
The Lions will be out for retribution and revenge after last year’s results, and while the victory against the Hurricanes has helped, there is still one more team in the way of their ultimate goal.
For the Crusaders, it has been far too long since the most successful team in Super Rugby has actually been successful. After all, success is measured in final victories, not appearances.
They are a team that once had rugby royalty among their ranks in Richie Mccaw and Dan Carter, but those glory days are over, and the Crusaders will be keen to prove that they are still the benchmark in professional rugby.
They have proved themselves in an extremely tough New Zealand conference, playing each fixture with professionalism and skills that should be admired.
Ultimately, this game is going to be very enjoyable to watch. They are two high-quality teams who will play hard until the very final whistle and that makes it very difficult to pick a winner.
While you can’t underestimate the Lions (like I have before), the Crusaders are a team of exceptional skill but also, more importantly on this occasion, mental strength. Under the leadership of the senior figures within the side, plus a spark from the backline, the Crusaders should not wilt in the South African heat.
Crusaders to win 33-29