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If the old adage that you need to lose one before you can win one is true, then the Lions are about to chalk up a third future Super Rugby title on credit.
They may well enjoy a golden run of title in coming seasons, but I can’t see it starting in the 2018 final this coming Saturday in Christchurch. The Lions were wonderful in disposing of an equally impressive Waratahs outfit at Ellis Park in the second semi-final, but it’s not exactly clear as to which aspect of the game they will take an advantage into their third straight final.
It’s certainly true that the Crusaders have been the dominant side of the competition over the back half of the season. The way they can choke teams out of a contest is quite incredible and without peer; 16 wins and two losses this year, and an unbeaten run that began in late March is a testament to that.
I don’t know how the Lions can overcome that ability to choke teams out of the contest. That’s what killed off the Hurricanes in the first semi-final, too, though Sky Sports commentator and former All Black scrumhalf Justin Marshall strangely didn’t recognise it as such when the result became obvious during the second half.
Following on from earlier comments expressing surprise that the Hurricanes had deviated away from their gameplan built around Ngani Laumape’s line-bending consistency at inside centre, Marshall went a bit further.
“I’m certainly not by any means being critical of the Hurricanes, I just don’t think they’ve brought what they have to offer to this game so far,” he said in the 66th minute, with the Crusaders leading 25-7.
“To me, they’ve been reasonably negative in their gameplan. These mistakes aren’t helping, and you’re always going to be under pressure at the set piece against a very good forward pack, but I just wonder whether or not they came here with the intent to throw the kitchen sink, Smithy? Because they seem a little within themselves tonight.
“A lot of that, I guess, is a credit to the Crusaders and the way they defend,” Marshall concluded, finally stumbling upon the very obvious answer.
“Exactly,” sideline commentator Ian Smith jumped in. “I mean, how long can you smash yourself against a brick wall before you find out you can’t get through it?”
“That’s effectively how that [Crusaders] defence has been. Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue have been almost impregnable tonight, and as you say, they’ll be greatly relieved because Laumape hasn’t been coming at them ball-in-hand.”
It was a really interesting exchange because it came in the middle of a period of the game in which a couple of ‘moments’ defined exactly why the Hurricanes hadn’t to that point been able to get themselves into the contest.
The moments started a quarter of an hour earlier, in the 53rd minute, when from a Hurricanes scrum feed on their ten-metre line, Goodhue led the Crusaders rush defence and got right up in the face of his opposite number, Jordie Barrett.
Seeing Goodhue rapidly closing in on him, Barrett tried a hurried, Fijian-Sevens-style ‘bat-on’ of the ball, only for it to go forward, leading to a Crusaders scrum around thirty metres from the Hurricanes’ line.
Taking the tackle might’ve been the percentage play but instead, it became a turnover that the Crusaders very nearly took points from, only for Richie Mo’unga’s grubber kick to be grounded in-goal. If Barrett takes that tackle, that opportunity was never there.
Four minutes later, the Hurricanes had mounted fourteen phases to be pressing the Crusaders’ 22, when Barrett was brought ground by Michael Ala’alatoa. Replacement scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond – I thought watching it live that it was Matt Todd, even scribbled his name down – was straight on the ball as the arriving player, and TJ Perenara’s arrival was slightly stymied by No.8 Blade Thomson being upended by Ala’alatoa getting to his feet.
Perenara lost the battle with Drummond for the ball, which spilt out to the right of the ruck for another turnover, from which Mo’unga pumped the Gilbert back down toward the Hurricanes’ vacant 22, rendering the previous build-up of possession useless. Just when the Hurricanes had got somewhere, they lost fifty metres in an instant.
In the 58th minute, it was Goodhue again, this time ripping the ball from Julian Savea after the big France-bound winger went too high into contact, and three minutes later, Drummond won a turnover penalty after Pete Samu brought Wes Goosen to ground. Once again it was nearing the Crusaders’ 22, and again it was after eight phases had put the Hurricanes back within range.
This is the kind of defensive pressure the Lions will face. Despite the Waratahs missing 32 tackles, the Lions only managed to break the line half a dozen or so times. The Crusaders won’t give them that many opportunities, so the Lions’ offload game is going to need to be on point.
They’ve clearly been the best team coming out of South Africa this season, and a third straight appearance in the last game of the year is entirely deserved, too. But whereas they went into their first two finals with a very good chance of taking the title – even starting as favourites against the Crusaders last season – their 2018 task will unquestionably be their hardest of the three.
The Crusaders’ record in finals campaigns is well known, and they’re not the most successful team in Super Rugby history by fluke. Their record hosting finals matches is ridiculous though; the 2018 final will be the 20th finals match played in Christchurch and they’re yet to lose a final at home.
And that extends to the 2011 qualifying final hosted in Nelson, too.
But beyond the history, beyond the daunting record at home, the Lions will face a side that knows it can play in a manner that just doesn’t allow their opponents in the contest. And as good as they’ve been in 2018, finding something when there’s nothing on offer doesn’t come easily to them.
The Crusaders’ relentlessness will ensure nothing will come easy for the Lions in the decider. And that’s why I can’t see anything other than a ninth Super Rugby title for the home side on Saturday.