Super Rugby 2017

The Final

Lions vs Crusaders

Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kickoff: 16h00 Local Time; 14h00 GMT
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (News Zealand), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker. (South Africa)
Citing Commissioner: Freek Burger (South Africa)

For the first time in many years a Super Rugby final is generating interest across the entire rugby world. Super 12 and even Super 14 attracted a lot of interest, it was interesting, exciting, innovative rugby that everyone enjoyed. Super 15 was the beginning of the downhill slide in spectator and viewer interest. The rugby became dour and boring survive at all costs stuff. The Super 18 format was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Nobody, except diehard fans and locals, had any interest in the playoffs and finals.

Somehow, the 2017 final is generating a lot of interest across the world. And it is easy to see why….

Somehow, out of the chaos that is Super Rugby, with it’s strange fixture and scheduling processes, a truly inexplicable conference system, and some strange qualification rules for undeserving teams to make it to the playoffs, the two teams that have made it through to the final offer a showpiece that makes the whole world sit up and take note.

The final promises something almost biblical, a showdown between David and Goliath. Two teams with markedly different approaches to the game of rugby, all-out attack versus massive defence, will face off and perhaps show us the future direction that rugby will take in the modern era.

We will be watching a team that plays fearless, high risk rugby against a team that focusses on playing hard, solid, low risk rugby to wear down their opponents before launching attacks.

It is the Lions versus the Crusaders, and it will be in front of the first full-house crowd in almost 9 years of Super Rugby finals. 60 000 tickets have been sold!

Such is the interest!

Let’s take a quick look at what the two teams bring to the game:

Both teams are right at the top of the Super Rugby stats tables. Both are in the top five for tries, points scored, carries, meters made, clean breaks and defenders beaten.

Only three teams have managed to average over 500 meters gained with the ball in hand. The Lions have averaged 572 meters per game, the Crusaders 513 meters. Only the Hurricanes match them, with 520 meters made on average.

The Lions score a lot of their tries from 1st phase possession, 37 in all, while the Saders are pretty good too with 29 such tries.

Let’s take a quick look at the playing statistics of the two teams.

The Lions have scored 88 tries, the Crusaders 82. The Lions banking a hefty 643 points across the season, with the Crusaders just a short head behind at 581.

Both teams have carried the ball a lot. The Crusaders 1935 times and the Lions making 2020 carries. The Lions made a staggering 15316 meters with the ball in hand, the Crusaders made an equally impressive 13306 meters.

Both teams moved the ball around too, the Lions making 2424 good passes, the Crusaders 2286. The Crusaders made 189 offloads, the Lions 178.

On the attack, the Lions made 135 tackle breaks and 130 line breaks, the Saders were also right up there with 124 tackle breaks and 110 line breaks. The Lions beat 446 defenders during the regular season, the Crusaders are also right up there with 410 defenders beaten.

On the ground the two teams were also pretty similar, both concede a similar number of rucks, the Lions 213, the Saders 202. But when we measure turnovers gained, the Lions are way ahead of anyone else with 75 turnovers won. The Crusaders lag a bit on 46, the 12th best in the competition.

Defensively, the Lions made 1796 tackles and missed 332, an 84% tackle success rate. 238 of those tackles are rated as dominant tackles, with 58 resulting in a ball turned over. The Saders made 2062 tackles, slipped just 303, for a success rate of 87%.

The Lions kicked the ball 327 times for a gain of 10082 meters. The Crusaders kicked it slightly more times, with 338 kicks, for 9740 meters gained.

The Lions made 517 handling errors and conceded 89 penalties. The Crusaders match them in this category with 500 handling errors, and 90 penalties.

The Lions head the stats list with the number of lineouts won, 192, and for lineouts stolen, 23. The Crusaders are 6th best with 164 lineouts won, but are 2nd on the stats list for lineouts stolen, with 17.

Much has been made of the Crusaders scrumming prowess, yet they are only 3rd on the stats list, behind both the Chiefs and the Hurricanes. The Saders have a 95% scrum success rate, which is still better than the Lions on 93%. (Interesting that both the Stormers and the Brumbies have a better success rate than the Lions too..)

Before we read too much into the statistics, it is worth considering that the Lions have certainly had the easier road to the final, last week’s win over the Hurricanes was their first taste of New Zealand rugby in 2017, and they struggled to get into the game for a full 38 minutes before they found their feet in the higher paced game that comes out of the Land of the Long White Cloud. It is easier to run up impressive stats when you are playing against the bottom feeders of the Super Rugby pond.

However, whatever anyone says about the softer season the Lions had to contend with, they still had to show the disciplines and focus to actually make the most of the opportunities offered.

Let’s look at some other aspects that will have an impact on this final.

Set Pieces:

Both teams have a very good pack of forwards. The Crusaders have a pack loaded with seasoned All Blacks. They have a superb scrum, with some real heavyweight experience waiting on the bench for the later stages of the game. The Lions have their fair share of Springboks, with the likes of Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert, and Jaco Kriel, and their scrum has been solid all season. They might be light on experience compared to the Crusaders, yet they boast some real talent too.

The two front rows present a formidable challenge to any team they face, and it will be an interesting confrontation on Saturday.

The lineouts will probably be pretty evenly contested, especially as both teams have locks who specialize in stealing ball from their opponents. Franco Mostert is way ahead of anyone else in this aspect of play in 2017, but Sam Whitelock is not that far off the pace.

Defence:

Last week we saw the Chiefs throw everything they had into attacking the Saders from every angle on the field. The Crusaders defence held firm, making over 200 tackles as they restricted the Chiefs to just one try. Their defence won them their place in the final!

Across the season their scramble defence has been superb, as they have shown excellent focus and commitment to the very last instant even when it has looked as if opponents would score.

The Lions struggled against the rush defence of both the Hurricanes last week, and the Sharks a week earlier. It took some pretty impressive scrambling to plug holes that opened up when attack broke down and provided opportunities for counterattack by both the Canes and the Sharks.

Both teams have shown that they can defend, the Lions with their 84% tackle success rate, and the Crusaders with their 87%. The Lions do have a weakness when their all-out attack approach leaves holes at the back. When their wings and fullback are up in the line of attack and the attack breaks down, quick thinking opponents will immediately try to exploit the empty space behind the Lions.

I would suggest that defence, as much as attack, could decide the ultimate outcome of this final.

The Lions 16th Man: Mr. Altitude.

Ellis Park is way above sea level, much higher in the sky than the Crusaders are used to playing their rugby. In the winter that high altitude is coupled to the dryness of the Highveld winter.

It is lung burning, energy sapping stuff for those who are not used to being up there!

Consider this: The Lions have scored 30 tries in the final quarter of their games so far this season, more than any other team, while they have conceded just five in the same time frame, fewer than any other team.

Last Saturday, the Hurricanes played some superb, high paced, running rugby in the first half of the game. As half-time approached the intensity of their game plan started to take its toll. As fit as they were, the effects of altitude began to hurt.

The Crusaders will have to be a lot smarter than the Canes. They will need to pace themselves through the game and try and reserve some energy and strength for the lung-busting stuff that comes in those last 20 minutes at Ellis Park.

I have a feeling that the long flight from Christchurch to Johannesburg, coupled to the effects of playing at altitude, might just hurt the visitors on Saturday!

The Lions have named an unchanged squad for Saturday.

For the fourth week in a row, coach Johan Ackermann has been able to stick with a winning side. Impressive continuity in selection that will also benefit the Lions as they look to win the trophy for 2017.

The Crusaders have also named an unchanged side for this game, with doubts about the fitness of Kieran Read and Owen Franks having been dispelled.

Teams:

Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.

Replacements: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.

Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.

Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 19 Pete Samu, 20 Mitchell Drummond, 21 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge

Prediction:

This is a Cup Final, and that brings all kinds of different thoughts and stresses to the individual players. Adrenaline courses through those veins and nerves are stretched like the strings in a longbow.

It is at times like these that experience is a great remedy for those jitters. If you have been there before, you know what you need to do to cope with the stress, the nerves, the insomnia. You will have developed a coping mechanism, you will have some way of getting yourself ready for the kick-off.

The Crusaders are perhaps the most experienced finalists in Super Rugby history. They have made it through to 11 finals, and they have won seven! That says that they know more about playing finals rugby than anyone else around.

But do they? They lost the last two finals they contested, back in 2011 (18 – 13 to the Reds) and 2014 (33-32 to the Waratahs). The last time they won the Super Rugby title was back in 2007.

And if we look at the teams playing on Saturday, the Lions have, collectively, more experience at playing in a final than do the Crusaders!

The Lions are also on a 14-game winning streak and have not lost at Ellis Park since the 30th of April 2016 when the Hurricanes managed a win.

When we look at the experience factor, and we add in the altitude factor, and then the home ground advantage of playing in front of a partisan crowd of 60 000, all the indicators start to swing towards the Lions.

We know that the Crusaders are a side loaded with hugely talented, experienced rugby players. We know that they bring a reputation for a formidable pack of forwards and rock solid defence to Johannesburg. We know that they play a disciplined game based on the tradition of forward dominance before all-out attack.

We also know that the Lions are a side loaded with hugely talented rugby players. They have a reputation for playing exciting, if somewhat high-risk, rugby and that they attack first and ask questions afterward. We know they have a solid pack of forwards and a good defence too.

We know that the Lions thrive on momentum, when they get their game going, they are very difficult to stop.

I think the single crucial factor that will decide this game will be the collisions on the gain-line. Who will dominate at the breakdown, who will make the most line breaks, who will survive the tackle contest the best? (Take a quick look at those turnover stats…….)

We are expecting a huge game of rugby, one of the best finals in many years.

And I think the Lions will win it. By around 14 points.