Super Rugby Final
Saturday 4th August
Crusaders vs Lions
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off: 19:35 local; 07:35 GMT; 09h35 SA Time
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, Nic Berry
TMO: Shane McDermott
One hundred and twenty six games have been played in the 2018 Super Rugby competition, just one remains.
This game brings to an end a season during which Super Rugby was again exposed as a contrived, badly structured competition that has caused spectator-fatigue and a loss of interest as it has dragged on and on for seven months.
The final, the supposed cherry-on-the-top of a season of “superior” rugby, simply emphasises how badly, how stupidly and badly thought through the entire Super Rugby series has become.
Where is the logic in allowing one of the two teams contesting the season’s showpiece to travel across ten time zones, with just three days to prepare for the biggest game of the season?
It does not matter whether the Lions are travelling to Wellington, or Christchurch, or the Crusaders have to travel to Johannesburg, the whole system is badly skewed in favour of the home side.
Just a year ago it took an early red card shown to Kwagga Smith to give the Crusaders a numerical advantage at Ellis Park, and then an enormous amount of guts to hold out for the 40 minutes of the second half to win the trophy away from home.
That win only serves to drive home the point that an away final in the current structure of Super Rugby is almost Mission Impossible.
Bluntly, the Lions’ have embarked on a well-nigh impossible mission to try and win the Super Rugby trophy, in New Zealand, in Christchurch, 11 543 kilometres away, across 10 time zones, and an 18-hour flight in the confines of a pressurised aircraft cabin, if they took the quickest flight option (offered by Australia’s Quantas) with a stop in Sydney.
We are told that the Lions have adopted a whole host of ideas and methods to help them cope with the jet-lag, the travel fatigue, and the change in their internal clocks, with special diets, a changed sleeping schedule and even just one practice, and all sorts of other interventions to help them prepare for the biggest game of their season.
The reality, sadly, has to be that they are still on a Mission Impossible.
Everything, every indicator, every prediction, and every rugby statistic is against the Lions winning this one.
Simple, sheer rugby logic says that the Crusaders will win this game.
This is not some mark of disrespect for the Lions, it is simple logic. A week ago, after their semifinal loss to the Crusaders, Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said the Crusaders were 20 points better than any other in the competition. He should know!
We could go to the stats book and suggest that these two teams are actually very evenly matched. We could say that the Lions have scored the most tries to-date, 87 after the semifinals were done and dusted, and the Crusaders are second, with 86. Even the number of conversions are almost identical, with the Crusaders converting 65 tries, and the Lions 66.
We could tell of the Lions carrying the ball for 12 695 meters, while the Crusaders have carried it 12 276 meters. We could say that the Lions have carried the ball 1955 times, while the Crusaders carried it 1945 times.
Perhaps we can compare the number of good passes the teams made, the Crusaders with 2260, and the Lions with 2251.
Handling errors? 345 by the ‘Saders, 336 by the Lions.
Linebreaks? 95 for the Crusaders, and 96 for the Lions.
The Lions have been better in the tackle burst, with 128 versus 95, but that is the only attacking stat where they are better than their hosts by a measurable number.
Here is one where the Crusaders are way ahead. They have kicked the ball 334 times, while the Lions only kicked it 275 times. The Crusaders are the fourth most kickingest team in the competition, with the Lions down in joint twelfth.
In the engine room of the scrums, lineouts, rucks and mauls the Lions are slightly better and also with winning the ball on the ground, with 76 turnovers to the ‘Saders 51, and the Lions are also way ahead on stolen lineouts, with 20, the best in 2018, while the Crusaders only have 9.
The scrums are almost dead even, and so are the mauls, although the Lions have scored off the driving maul more than anyone else.
So far, then, all the statistics are pretty even. Two teams that are very evenly matched, on paper.
The only really worrying statistic for Lions fans will be their 83% tackle success rate, where the Crusaders are way ahead with an 89% tackle success rate. The Lions defence has frequently been just a little too porous for comfort.
Why then, if the stats are so similar, are the Crusaders such overwhelming favourites to win this game?
Well, there is one niggling little problem that plagues the stats comparison.
You see, the Lions’ wonderful stats were compiled during a double round of derbies against fellow members of the South African conference, or in 8 of their total of 16 regular season games, with just 8 games against teams from Australia and New Zealand. The Crusaders had the same kind of fixture list, they had to play 8 derbies against fellow New Zealanders, and just eight against South Africans and Australians.
The quality of the different conferences, and the quality of their opponents simply bears no comparison. The Crusaders had to work much harder to achieve stats remarkably similar to those of the Lions.
For all the statistical comparisons to have made sense, the two teams needed to play the same opponents, the same number of times.
If you are a betting man looking for a way to make some money on this game, throw away the stats book, it is not going to help you any.
One needs to abandon logic and consider the fact that the Lions will know that they are on a Mission Impossible quest, and that is perhaps their very best weapon in this game.
When you have nothing to lose, and there is no weight of expectation, no pressure, sometimes rugby miracles happen.
I guess that this is a sad moment for many of us. Wyatt Crockett has been left out the Crusaders’ squad for this final, and we will not see him play one final game to finish an illustrious career. Thanks Wyatt, enjoy retirement.
Scott Robertson has made just one change to his Crusaders starting XV for Saturday’s Super Rugby final.
In the number six jersey, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis will start in place of the injured loose forward Jordan Taufua, who fractured his arm in the semi-final victory over the Hurricanes. Last weekend’s reserve hooker, Seb Siataga, also fractured his arm in that match and has been replaced by Sam Anderson-Heather as back up to Codie Taylor.
In total, 19 of the Crusaders’ match day 23 named for this Saturday, were also involved in last year’s final against the same opposition in Johannesburg.
Courtnall Skosan has been promoted to the Lions’ starting XV for the Super Rugby final.
Skosan came on at half-time for Aphiwe Dyantyi in last weekend’s 44-26 semi-final win against the Waratahs and this time will start ahead of Dyantyi, who has been battling a hamstring niggle in the build-up to the game.
In the only other change to the starting side, Cyle Brink replaces Lourens Erasmus at openside flanker.
Let’s again emphasise the height of the mountain the Lions have to climb in New Zealand. The Crusaders have won all 20 of their playoff matches that they have hosted in Christchurch.
They have not lost a Super Rugby game at home over the past two years.
They are currently on a 14-match winning streak, and have won nine out of their last 10 games against the Lions – including last year’s final at Ellis Park.
That is the line drawn in the sand for the Lions to try and cross.
How exactly will the Lions attempt to cross that line?
Both teams build their game on the foundation of a dominant set-piece and consistent forward strength. (Nick Mallett has said that the Lions have the pack of forwards that can hold and beat the Crusaders. He may be correct.)
Both teams focus on their lineout and scrum to force opponents onto the back foot, often to devastating effect. They both use that forward platform to strike and score. The Lions have scored 41 tries from the first phase, launching attacks from the scrum, or lineout platform. The Crusaders have scored 36 tries off the first phase too.
While the two scrums match up well in terms of their scrumming stats, one has to consider the one man that some might consider the Lions’ weak link. Ruan Dreyer is something of an enigma. When he gets it right in the scrums, the tighthead is as good as any in the world. When he gets it wrong, he is a liability. The man was the most penalised player in Super Rugby in 2017, and 2018 has been no better as he has conceded 21 penalties over the course of the season. Which is an awful lot, especially when you consider that the Lions have, as a whole scrumming unit, conceded just 28 scrum penalties!
We can have no doubt that the Crusaders, with the wily old campaigner Joe Moody at loosehead, will be targeting Ruan Dreyer in the scrums. We also know that once referee Angus Gardiner has his eye on someone, he becomes pretty severe on any perceived indiscretion!
The lineouts are perhaps slightly skewed in favour of the Lions, with their talismanic Franco Mostert ruling as the best lineout jumper in the competition. He is also the leading lineout stealer, with 13 poached balls out of the 20 the Lions stole all season. Marvin Orie is a long way back with just 3. The Lions do have the best lineout drive/maul in the entire competition, often built on the clean ball taken by Mostert.
Statistics tell us that the set-piece battle could be where this game is won or lost, and the match-up could be one for the purists.
The real discussion must be what happens behind the forwards.
At half-back the Crusaders seem to have the edge. Bryn Hall is simply quicker than Ross Cronje in almost every respect, and his quickness to the ball gives the Crusaders’ backs “hot” front-foot ball in broken play. Cronje is a half a yard slower to the ball, and can be slow, indecisive even, in clearing the ball at the base of rucks. On the other hand, Cronje is a stronger ball carrier in the contact situations and makes many meters carrying the ball.
The match-up between Richie Mo’unga and Elton Jantjies will be watched with special interest.
Richie Mo’unga has looked the part since he returned from injury. He is playing very quick, direct rugby with the ball in hand, and has launched his midfield and outside backs with quick, clever passing and pin-point tactical kicking. After last week’s semifinal many are calling for him to be the All Blacks starting flyhalf.
Mo’unga likes to take on his opposite number by running at him from both set-pieces and from quick ruck ball, and that could be where the Lions have a huge problem. Elton Jantjies and tackling are almost foreign to one another, where he has missed the third most tackles in 2018, with a woeful 59% tackle completion rate, only Samu Kerevi and Kurtley Beale are worse than him in the entire competition!
Elton Jantjies has been in good form in the playoffs, with touches of sheer brilliance and very good game management, offset by some strange moments of indecision and a lack of clarity in what he wants to achieve with the ball in hand. Mostly, though, he has been very good, as neither the Jaguares nor the Waratahs were able to put him under consistent pressure for long spells of times. though.
The Crusaders will know that Jantjies, going forward with confidence, is as good as any attacking flyhalf anywhere in the world. They will also know of his defensive problems and, more importantly, of his frailty under pressure. They will focus on testing his channel with the ball in hand, with both the back division and the loose forwards looking to run at him with the ball in hand.
They will, most certainly, be piling on the pressure when chasing the ball. Bryn Hall, in particular, together with Matt Todd, will be ramping up the pressure to see if Jantjies will crack again. (He did, two years ago, when it was TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea that loomed large every time he received a ball.)
The Crusaders will also test the Lions’ midfield defenders with relentless pressure and clinical phase play, relying on the recycled ball to launch the carefully clinical and precise attacks that they have used so successfully in 2018. Their midfield can be a nightmare to defend against. The Lions will need to be very accurate and precise on defence, with a real focus from their second line of defenders if the likes of Crotty and Goodhue breach the first line.
In contrast, we can expect the Crusaders to use their rush defence to try and disrupt and upset the Lions midfielders. Their rush defence has troubled a lot of teams this season, markedly the Hurricanes just a week ago. A mark of the quality of their defence is the fact that they have conceded fewer points and tries than any other team in 2018.
Defence is, perhaps, the most critical weakness in the Lions’ make-up, and they have been particularly poor in the first 20 minutes of their last two games. No one needs reminding that the Crusaders scored two tries in the first 11 minutes of last year’s final at Ellis Park!
If the Lions concede the early lead again this weekend, it might just put the game out of their reach.
We also know that the Crusaders are likely to start fast, it has been a consistent tactic against visiting teams in 2018.
The Crusaders’ scoring opportunities tend to be built around the precision play of their midfield, with Crotty as the general that calls the shots. They pick holes in the defensive array, and then unleash the likes of George Bridge, David Havili, and Seta Tamanivalu to finish the job. The Lions are more opportunistic and will attack from anywhere on the field, relying on the counter-punch as much as they do on their set-piece ball.
The battle for the loose ball and at the breakdowns is likely to be another critical part of this game. In recent weeks the combination of Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith has been imperious over the loose ball, but they are up against Matt Todd, Cody Taylor and Heiden Bedwell-Curtis. (The latter replacing Jordan Taufua this week.) The Crusaders will not stand back on inch in the breakdown battles. The loss of Jordan Taufua, though, might compromise the Crusader’s efforts slightly.
Interesting too, that both teams are known for their scoring efforts in the last quarter of games. The Lions are perhaps statistically slightly the better finishers of the two, but both have piled on the points in the fourth quarter of matches played this season. This would indicate that both teams are very fit and work to gain superiority over opponents that are running out of steam. (Of course, more people run out of steam when visiting Ellis Park than anywhere else in the competition.)
On paper, the two teams seem well matched up front, while the back divisions have their differences. The Lions are less structured and more opportunist, while the Crusaders are structured and precise.
The Lions have a game-breaker in Malcolm Marx, but he will be well matched by Codie Taylor in the set-pieces, and will be watched by the likes of Kieran Read and Matt Todd in broken play.
The real difference between the two teams has been in their defensive performances. The Lions will need to improve beyond all measure in this department if they want to have a hope of beating the Crusaders.
Which brings us to:
Lions will know that they have to approach this final rematch with composure, self-belief and an absolute determination to stick to their strengths.
That strength is found in a highly-efficient set piece, powerful maul and a pack of forwards who give it all.
Their weakness is a real defensive frailty, coupled to the unpredictable composure of their flyhalf, Elton Jantjies. If their defence holds, and their flyhalf is playing with confidence and composure, they can win this one.
Sadly, they are away from home. A long, long way away from home.
They are up against an outfit that features more All Blacks than any other team in New Zealand.
They are playing the Crusaders, who have perhaps the best home record in the business, and an even better home play-off record than is fair!
The Lions might be one of the fittest teams in the tournament, but that journey from Johannesburg to Christchurch will have taken a lot out of them, and the jet-lag and fatigue will start to work against them later in the game.
The Lions are likely to try and make a fast start, throwing everything at the Crusaders with the aim of building a big lead, and hope that their legs and defence can hold out for the full 80 minutes.
The Crusaders will be in finals mode. They will be fully focussed, ramping up the intent and physicality in an attempt to drain the energy from tired Lions’ legs, and suck the confidence from their minds. They will look to contain, pick away at the frailties, and take the game away from the Lions in that last quarter.
It just seems that it is a bit too much for the team from Johannesburg.
The Crusaders will win this one, by around 20 points
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c) 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 23 Howard Mnisi