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After three consecutive losses, can the Lions keep it together?

Lions' Lionel Mapoe reacts after defeat during the Super Rugby final between the Canterbury Crusaders of New Zealand and the Golden Lions of South Africa at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on August 4, 2018. (MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
Expert
6th August, 2018
132

In the end, it went according to script. The Crusaders were indeed too good, too well-drilled, too relentless on their way to securing an incredible ninth Super Rugby title, beating the Lions for the second straight season in the decider.

A scoreline of 37-18 was a pretty fair reflection of the two sides on the night. Even if I didn’t think the margin would be that wide going into the match, there’s certainly no argument over the dominance of the home side in running in four tries to two.

It’s certainly true that at the start of the year, and even for the first month or two I was still leaning toward the Hurricanes topping the New Zealand conference. But you might recall at the time that this was more around a belief that they’d let an opportunity slip last year, and that the motivation of a departing coach and captain would be strong.

It wasn’t that the Crusaders had gone backwards. Indeed, by the midpoint of the season it was becoming very clear that they’d become a better side than the one which won a title in Johannesburg the previous season.

The Lions, on the other hand, were looking certain to top the South African conference after the first few rounds.

Buoyed by their superb 2017, the Lions has just picked up where they left off. Johan Ackermann had left for English Premiership side Gloucester, but Swys de Bruin had assumed the clipboard seamlessly, with the Lions playing relentless rugby of their own and already proving that they would remain hard to beat at Ellis Park.

A large part of that successful transition stemmed from the fact that much of the squad was still intact, with the 2016 loss in Wellington and especially the home final loss in 2017 driving them toward going one better in 2018.

Their set piece was strong, Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith had pushed their breakdown game to new levels again, and when they lobbed in Sydney midway through the season, they put the Waratahs through a clinic.

Kwagga Smith

The Lions’ Kwagga Smith (CHRISTIAAN KOTZE/AFP/Getty Images)

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It was very clear that a top two finish was likely, and if they could secure home finals along the way, they were going to take some beating. Maybe the pain of two lost finals was about to bear the fruit the Lions desired.

They did secure a top two finish, but it wasn’t without a few wobbles along the way. Either side of the June break they suddenly looked surprisingly vulnerable, but a strong statement win over the Bulls in the final round locked them into the position they felt destined for as far back as March.

Come Saturday night, their much-vaunted and mostly deadly lineout drive lost its bite in the face of a Crusaders’ maul defence that simply rolled the sleeves up further with every repeat attempt. When that failed and they opted instead for scrums, they never capitalised on the semblance of superiority they carried at times.

And that was mostly because Elton Jantjies had exactly the sort of game that provides yet more ammunition for those of the belief that he consistently doesn’t stand up in tough times. When he’s on, Jantjies goes to the line and has a really clever offload game; in the Final, he carried five times for four metres and offloaded just once.

Jantjies shovelled the ball on 25 times for the match, yet five of the starting forwards and both centres didn’t crack ten metres for the game. And remember, the Lions enjoyed the majority of possession for the match.

Yes, they were well beaten, and yes, the Crusaders were at their dominant, unflinching best without even the slightest hint of compromise.

But the worry for me is that I don’t see how the Lions come back from this. And I think this looming retreat of the Lions back to the chasing pack has been coming for twelve months.

When Ackermann headed north last year, taking son Ruan with him wasn’t really going to hurt with the Lions with a pretty solid backrow unit still in place. Even the loss of hooker Akker van der Merwe to the Sharks was hardly going to sting when Malcolm Marx was already established as a fast-rising player of world class.

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Malcolm Marx

Malcolm Marx of the Lions (Photo by Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

With the exception of Faf de Klerk – and I still can’t believe Ross Cronje is now a Springbok – none of the Lions’ losses going into the 2018 season were major. They still had plenty of quality to mount another finals tilt.

I’m not sure that will be true in 2019. Coach Ackermann lured cult backrow hero Jaco Kriel to the cherry-and-whites in April, with prop Ruan Dreyer and lock Franco Mostert following in May. Prop Jacques van Rooyen could yet join them. Hulking centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg will join the livewire de Klerk at Sale.

Maybe the concern shouldn’t be that the Lions will leave Super Rugby and head north; perhaps the bigger danger is that a reunion of ex-Lions already in the north will form a team.

The way I see it, only questions remain heading into 2019. Will the pack be the same set piece monster? Does Jantjies have the mettle to overcome the demons? Will they remain the best side in South Africa?

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Three lost finals in successive years is perhaps the worst measure of success going around, though the Lions’ pride in reaching the decider every year for the past three has always been evident. Even admirable.

But you do have to wonder if they can start the 2019 season in the same position of strength, given the impact of the key players departing. The Lions looked ominous in 2018 for the same reason the Crusaders looked ominous in 2018: they both looked very similar to how they finished the 2017 season.

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That will still be the case for the Crusaders in 2019, but it’s doubtful for the Lions. And so, for 2018 to not feel like the end of the era, the Lions need to look no further for a blueprint to success than the way the Crusaders were able to rejuvenate after losing their big names and key players a few seasons ago.

The quicker the Lions can resume the appearance of themselves over the last three seasons, the longer their run at the top can continue.