So there it is then – after all those weeks of clubs from around the southern hemisphere (and Japan!) beating seven shades out of each other we have our two grand finalists – the Lions from the South African conference and the Crusaders from the New Zealand conference.
This weekend saw two very entertaining semi finals and while the top two sides on the ladder at the end of the regular season have made the final, that doesn’t mean that there’s still not lots to talk about. So let’s get to it…
Kwagga Smith – don’t underestimate the little man
Huge ears and a first name that makes him sound like a marsupial from Western Australia, but damn this guy can play.
His small size might leave many to assume that he’s all about pace and not power but soon after that assumption he’ll have knocked you on your arse and you’ll be watching him score another try.
He grabbed two against the Tahs with one of them coming after he’d shrugged after four defenders from the Sydney siders.
He’ll relish the chance to go up against the Crusaders, even more so after his unfortunate exit from last year’s final under an early red card.
If he has another big game then the Lions are one step closer to toppling the favourites. Speaking of Lions who need to have big games…
This is Elton Jantjies (last?) chance
The Lions No.10 has infamously struggled at the international level and many are frustrated that he’s never been able to reproduce his Super Rugby form on the biggest stage of all.
In the past few games he’s played very well for the Lions bringing a sense of control to his obvious attacking talents.
After his most recent weak performance for the Boks, he might struggle to get much more time on the international scene. So winning the Super Rugby title is going to be crucial in terms of his legacy.
There have been some who feel that he only performs well off the back of a dominant pack and can go missing in the really tough games.
There will be no better test of whether this is true than a final, against the Crusaders, in Christchurch.
Will Steve Hansen rethink Beauden’s starting position?
The Canes vs Crusaders game was billed as the best of the best going head to head. So many tasty match ups and none more so than Beauden Barrett vs Richie Mo’unga.
As many suspected, it was the Crusaders No.10 who came off looking best and to be fair, he did so by a country mile. He was in great form against the Canes and dominated the game and Barrett.
Yes Barrett was playing behind a pack that was coming off second best, but surely the best of the best are able to make something happen in the toughest of situations?
Barrett has not had the year that he would have hoped for – he’s definitely not failed by any means but he hasn’t been as all-conquering as previous years.
On the other hand Mo’unga has been in career-best form.
With the Rugby Championship just around the corner, will Steven Hansen reward Mo’unga with some starting opportunities in the famous No.10 All Blacks jersey?
Three reasons why the Tahs are their own worst enemies
There’s a lot to like about the Tahs but in three ways they showed in the game against the Lions that their biggest problem is themselves…
No team that made the finals conceded more points during the regular season than the Tahs and during the finals, the Tahs conceded almost 70 points in two games.
Now the fact that the Tahs were able to do this and still make the semi-finals is impressive but it does tell you a lot about why they were always going to struggle in knockout rugby against the top teams.
Throughout the finals there were examples where both from an execution point of view and an organisational point of view the Tahs were really all over the place.
On the flip side no team scored more points than the Sydneysiders. If they can improve their defensive performances in 2019 then they could be a real threat for the title.
As well as defensive weaknesses, the Tahs need to sort out their discipline. 29 penalty goals conceded this season and 183 penalties conceded is one of the worst records in the competition. Against the Lions they gave 15 penalties, 2 free kicks and had a man sent to the bin.
That sort of record is just going to make things so much harder for any side and against the Lions it meant they had to try and score more and more points when they were gasping for air at altitude. Finals rugby is hard enough but giving away possession, territory and points so often makes it a lot harder.
Of course the Tahs wanted to win and there’s no doubt that they worked hard even when things were going against them.
However there were key moments where they just slacked off and it cost them dearly.
One prime example is in 25th minute. The Tahs had scored twice and the Lions once. The game was tight and the next score was going to be an important one.
The Tahs kicked ahead and in the next few seconds fans got to see one of the individual tries of the entire season from Aphiwe Dyantyi.
But the point is that when he gathered the bouncing ball from the Tahs kick there was not a single blue shirt anywhere within 25m to 30m of him. He had time to look up, asses the situation, get up some speed and plan his perfectly executed chip ahead.
They didn’t lose the game because of that moment but they did lose a good lead because of letting in that try and that gave the home side confidence after being torn to shreds in the opening 15 minutes.
Lions can’t start slow next week
One of the most impressive things about the Lions performance today was that they were 14-0 down after 10 minutes and then won the next 70 minutes 44-12.
The Tahs have leaked points all season long so giving them such a lead isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Giving the Crusaders a two try lead is something entirely different.
The Lions started slowly against the Tahs and they started slowly against the Jaguares in the quarters as well.
In both matches they used their own skill and their fitness at altitude to overcome their opponents as they desperately tried to suck in oxygen.
They need to figure out what it’s going to take to switch on from that first whistle and get into the game from that first contact.
Otherwise they are going to be trying to chase down the best side in the competition and no one has done that recently.
Anyone else scared of Malcolm Marx?
This guy is incredible. His performances this year have marked him out as one of the very best hookers in the world and he is worth his muscular weight in gold.
In the tight and the loose he is so impressive but it doesn’t stop there. Against the Tahs he was a regular threat at the breakdown.
He’s like Pocock – if he can get himself set and his hands on the ball there is nothing the opposition can do to move him.
It’s going to be exciting to see him run out in the Rugby Championship especially his battles against the Kiwis where he’ll be wanting to stamp his authority.
The final against the Crusaders will be an early taster of what August will bring and if Marx can have another big game along with the likes of Smith and Jantjies then maybe, just maybe the title will be Johannesburg bound.
Oh, and can anyone figure out how to beat the Crusaders?
So used to performances like the one against the Canes are we that it’s easy to forget to mention the Crusaders.
But they deserve a mention for sure after making one of the best sides in Super Rugby look average and lost.
The way in which the lads from Christchurch broke the Canes down piece by piece until all that was left was some yellow shirts “tumble weeding” their way across AMI Stadium was incredible to watch.
There have been some who have called it all a bit boring but if you watched the way they played on Saturday evening and think it’s boring then you are lost and you need to have a long hard think about yourself.
The way they seem so comfortable defending on their line, almost serene in the belief that not only won’t they let the opposition in but that there’s a decent chance of a counter attack is mind blowing.
Let’s hope that the Lions bring their very best to the Final because we all want a fantastic match to wrap up the season.