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

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    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)

    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.

    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?

    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.

    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.

    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 (132)

    • August 7th 2018 @ 7:09am
      Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:09am | ! Report

      Sadly, I think you’re right, Brett. I feel like the Lions’ chance might be over – they’re just losing so many good players.

      South Africa’s loss is Aus’ gain though, as it means we’re far more likely to have a team finish second. Out of interest, have you heard anything of this Samu Kerevi to the Brumbies business?

      • Columnist

        August 7th 2018 @ 1:00pm
        Brett McKay said | August 7th 2018 @ 1:00pm | ! Report

        Nothing more than the rumours, Fionn. I’m sceptical, if I’m honest. Someone like Paia’aua or Meakes is more the player the Brumbies need at 12, in my humble opinon…

    • August 7th 2018 @ 7:25am
      Bakkies said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:25am | ! Report

      Andries Coetzee and Jantjies are rumoured to be off as well. The Currie Cup won’t be much for the players coming through. Too many weakened sides or those in disarray like the Blue Bulls and WP.

      I suspect the Sharks or Jaguares will top the conference next year. Very little written about the WP/Stormers fiasco here. They may struggle to pay players at the end of the month and the administrators are constantly denying rumours that they have Newlands up as collateral to pay debtors.

      • Roar Guru

        August 7th 2018 @ 9:09am
        Ralph said | August 7th 2018 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        Bakkies,

        Do you know if these financial troubles are caused by incompetence or corruption?

        • Roar Guru

          August 7th 2018 @ 11:41am
          Bakkies said | August 7th 2018 @ 11:41am | ! Report

          Ralph the likelihood is that the causes are both corruption and incompetence. The Stormers didn’t even have a kit sponsor this year after Adidas pulled out.

          • Roar Guru

            August 7th 2018 @ 1:04pm
            Ralph said | August 7th 2018 @ 1:04pm | ! Report

            It’s all very sad.

            • Roar Guru

              August 8th 2018 @ 7:43am
              Bakkies said | August 8th 2018 @ 7:43am | ! Report

              It is and Corné Krige has taken them to task. The Stormers’ version of Cameron de Clyne responded to Krige by writing him a publicised letter.

      • Columnist

        August 7th 2018 @ 10:36am
        Brett McKay said | August 7th 2018 @ 10:36am | ! Report

        Andries Coetzee, Bakkies, seemed all but certain to be heading to Europe, with Sale, Gloucester and especially Toulon all listed – I actually thought he’d signed with Toulon, and I’m equally sure that he had the ceremonial final kick at goal in the last match at Ellis Park this year.

        But then just before the QFs he and Whiteley were announced together as having re-signed with the Lions and SARU through to the end of 2020.

        (I actually had to delete a line from this piece!)

    • August 7th 2018 @ 7:27am
      Sinclair said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:27am | ! Report

      It would be a wonderful prospect to see Kerevi line up at 12 with Kuridrani at 13. Might really benefit Kerevi’s passing game. Personally, I rather see the Brumbies pinch Duncan P. I feel considerable optimism about my second team.

      Do any of you have a preferred candidate for Brumbies 12?

      • August 7th 2018 @ 7:35am
        Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:35am | ! Report

        Matt Toomua.

        Personally, I’d rather Samu to Paia’aua, but either wound be brilliant.

        • August 7th 2018 @ 8:26am
          riddler said | August 7th 2018 @ 8:26am | ! Report

          keep your grubby brumby mitts off duncan p and jordan p!!!

          you can have samu,,

          but don’t touch the other 2!!!

          • August 7th 2018 @ 8:44am
            Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 8:44am | ! Report

            Honestly, I’d prefer Samu to either of those two guys. Along with Folau the best attacking player in Australian rugby, so happy to have him.

            • August 7th 2018 @ 10:44am
              Worlds Biggest said | August 7th 2018 @ 10:44am | ! Report

              Big call on Samu there Fionn, i’d have Beale ahead of Samu every day of the week. I don’t get the love for Samu at all.

              • August 7th 2018 @ 10:50am
                Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 10:50am | ! Report

                Attacking with ball in hand.

                I might prefer Beale, but Samu is the young guy with the big future. Beale is almost 30.

          • August 7th 2018 @ 8:50am
            Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 8:50am | ! Report

            Just got an email from the Brumbies saying that Toni Pulu joined the team from the Chiefs.

            If we do end up nabbing Samu then our backline starts looking pretty good.

            9. Powell, 10. Lealiifano, 11. Pulu, 12. Kerevi, 13. Kuridrani, 14. Speight, 15. Banks

            • August 7th 2018 @ 9:22am
              Daveski said | August 7th 2018 @ 9:22am | ! Report

              Pulu is a good player but I don’t get that sort of signing…

              Andy Muirhead has been just about your best back this season.

              • August 7th 2018 @ 9:42am
                Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 9:42am | ! Report

                I don’t quite agree think he was the best, Daveski, but I agree he was very good. You’ve got to think Muirhead, Pulu + Banks will probably be the Brumbies’ three preferred outside backs.

                Dargaville and Smith have left. Who knows if Peni and Verity-Amm will stay given the game time they’ve been getting.

              • August 7th 2018 @ 12:23pm
                Daveski said | August 7th 2018 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

                Was sad to see Dargaville go and you mentioning JVA reinforces my point. Two good young fast Aussie wingers and Brumbies sign a Kiwi.

                Yes you need depth and maybe poaching NZers is a good way to go about it but not really the best for Aust rugby

              • August 7th 2018 @ 11:47am
                Markus said | August 7th 2018 @ 11:47am | ! Report

                Peni seemed to get as much game time as physically possible given his three back to back suspensions for his tackling.

                I think he will be fortunate to be offered an extension given how much of a liability he showed himself to be.

              • August 7th 2018 @ 2:09pm
                Cliff Bishkek said | August 7th 2018 @ 2:09pm | ! Report

                Why do we sign Kiwis or players not eligible for the Wallabies? We should be giving younger and up and coming players the opportunity.

              • Roar Rookie

                August 7th 2018 @ 4:41pm
                atlas said | August 7th 2018 @ 4:41pm | ! Report

                According to Rugby Heaven today, he’s available now:
                “The 29-year-old, who has played sevens for Niue, joins Crusaders loose forward Pete Samu in leaving New Zealand to play for the two-time champions in Canberra. Pulu holds an Australian passport and despite his history with Niue, a Rugby Australia spokesman told Fox Sports that World Rugby had cleared him to play for Australia if picked by coach Michael Cheika.”
                It’s where the money is, can’t blame him, in May this year he said he was aiming for the Tongan team and playing RWC 2019 for them, but had no Super contract for 2019.
                What a great mix, born USA, NZ since 3, eligible for Niue, Australia as well…a true international!

              • August 7th 2018 @ 2:27pm
                Akari said | August 7th 2018 @ 2:27pm | ! Report

                Pulu would be eligible in 3 years, CB

                Duncan P is in great need of a change of scene and he or Samu K would be greatly welcomed in addition to Pulu.

              • August 8th 2018 @ 7:27am
                Bakkies said | August 8th 2018 @ 7:27am | ! Report

                Verity Amm is off to join the Rabble’s 50 man squad to play local Rugby in Melbourne. He has already said farewell to Easts in Canberra.

                The RA shrinking to greatness.

              • August 8th 2018 @ 8:35am
                Fionn said | August 8th 2018 @ 8:35am | ! Report

                Sad about JMA as I think he, like Dargaville, is a good player. Australia just has a lot of outside backs.

            • Roar Guru

              August 7th 2018 @ 9:38am
              John R said | August 7th 2018 @ 9:38am | ! Report

              Seems a slim Chance we’ll see much of Peni then…

              See what I did there? Guys?

              • August 7th 2018 @ 9:43am
                Fionn said | August 7th 2018 @ 9:43am | ! Report

                I didn’t get it initially but by Chance the Peni just dropped.

                Well played 😛

              • Roar Guru

                August 7th 2018 @ 9:59am
                John R said | August 7th 2018 @ 9:59am | ! Report

                Alright alright alright.

    • August 7th 2018 @ 7:31am
      Worlds Biggest said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:31am | ! Report

      Don’t think I want another Lions Final appearance, it would be reminiscent of the Buffalo Bills of the early 90’s. Losing 3 consecutive Finals is very tough however a fourth….. That said any team with Marx, Smith and Co and exactly going to fall off the perch.

    • August 7th 2018 @ 7:33am
      Sinclair said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:33am | ! Report

      Bakkies, does the continuing drain of players to the north, travel and time zone issues with Super Rugby, admin problems at Stormers and a certain similarity in playing style/values with Europe suggest another club will head to Europe?

      The Bok squad looks a pretty strong one and Erasmus seems to be developing something special…

      • August 7th 2018 @ 8:02am
        Bakkies said | August 7th 2018 @ 8:02am | ! Report

        SARU are proposing to slash 400 pro contracts I am not sure how they are going to do that for players who have deals and may be entitled to redundancies due to length of service.

        It came out this week that the Lions are the only stable union financially however they are still trying to repair the books after their relegation. That year they had to cancel half of their fixtures as they couldn’t afford to fulfil them. 2020 they may be looking at a move. The Cheetahs have said that their books are better off since leaving as they are getting sponsorship deals paid in euros and pounds rather than rand.

        As for the Boks they have too many flaky players like the Wallabies, weaknesses in the backs and Kolisi is not the best in his position nor the best leader (see Hooper!). Whiteley is their best leader and they played with a far better intensity and purpose with him in charge against France last year. I hadn’t seen that from the Boks for some time.

        • Roar Guru

          August 7th 2018 @ 2:59pm
          Ralph said | August 7th 2018 @ 2:59pm | ! Report

          What I don’t quite understand is, that if the core challenges are;

          (a) bankruptcy due to incompetence and corruption, and

          (b) a collapsing national currency, then

          How does it make any particular difference whether they put teams in Pro or Super rugby?

          Surely the whole mess collapses regardless of the competition mix because the challenges transcend that choice of which competition?

          • Roar Guru

            August 7th 2018 @ 8:24pm
            The Neutral View From Sweden said | August 7th 2018 @ 8:24pm | ! Report

            I certainly understand your points, Ralph and I agree that SA will face huge challenges wherever they end up after 2020. But possible upsides with Europe is:

            A significant part of their income would be in Euros.
            All the games, both Tests, and Pro14 and European Cups being played at prime time for SA audiences (and Europeans audiences), they have a better chance of getting a big broadcasting deal.
            Europe overall is a much bigger and richer market than SANZAAR.

            When both the national union and several regional unions are flirting with bankruptcy it is easy to understand why they are looking up north.

          • Roar Guru

            August 8th 2018 @ 7:32am
            Bakkies said | August 8th 2018 @ 7:32am | ! Report

            ‘How does it make any particular difference whether they put teams in Pro or Super rugby?’

            Paid in stronger currency. The Cheetahs have already increased their revenue through sponsors in Euros and Pounds.

            Teams won’t be out of sight for four weeks. There is also the lucrative Not the Heineken Cup now the Champions Cup sponsored by Heineken. To try and get in to that comp Martin Anayi the Pro 14 CEO said SARU have to become full partners. They have already joined the board and contribute to the TV pot.

            • Roar Guru

              August 8th 2018 @ 8:30am
              Ralph said | August 8th 2018 @ 8:30am | ! Report

              Thanks for the reply.

      • August 7th 2018 @ 12:55pm
        Nicolai said | August 7th 2018 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

        Sinclair, SARU announced a while ago that another 2 rugby provinces/teams have reach the Franchise Level.
        That is, these 2 teams can now join an international completion – Super Rugby, Pro 14, etc, etc – IF I understand correctly.

        I would not be surprised to see 4 South African teams in Super Rugby and 4 in PRO 14.
        And every few years the teams will get shuffled around so you don’t have the same teams in Super Rugby and PRO 14 all the time.

        • Roar Guru

          August 8th 2018 @ 7:37am
          Bakkies said | August 8th 2018 @ 7:37am | ! Report

          That’s all changed now. The competition that SARU were trying to get Griquas and Pumas in to, the Anglo Welsh Cup is now defunct. They will also struggle to attract players as they are already trying to supplement the Kings. Neither are strong enough off their own back to join the Pro 14.

          The financials from all four Super Rugby teams have been and not one of them has signing up to five more years of an expensive All Black trial is going to keep themselves financially. In reality it could drive at least two of them to the brink (likely the Bulls and Stormers).

          You also can’t shuffle around teams as the seasons aren’t in sync and the Pro 14 conferences are set up based on the previous season’s performances. Throw in possible European qualification.

    • August 7th 2018 @ 7:34am
      Old Bugger said | August 7th 2018 @ 7:34am | ! Report

      I also agree Brett but at this stage, I’m also betting an each way offlay if the Union itself, will remain with Sanzaar.

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