Super Rugby Final

Review

 Saturday 4th August

Crusaders 37 vs Lions 18

 

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

Mission Impossible, the name of a 6-movie franchise, also describing the challenge that faced the Lions as they travelled from Johannesburg to Christchurch to play the Crusaders in the 2018 Super Rugby final.

It was a long way to go, all of 11 543 kilometres, across 10 time zones, further away from home than many people travel in their entire lives. The journey included an 18-hour flight in the confines of a pressurised aircraft cabin.

And, on their arrival in Christchurch, the Lions were not on holiday. This was no sightseeing trip. This was a business trip. A serious business was at hand.

They had flown almost halfway around the world to go and play a rugby match against one of the most professional, most accomplished, and most clinical rugby teams the world has ever seen.

A mission dubbed “impossible” by everyone except a few true believers.

And so it proved to be.

Not that the Lions’ were disgraced. They were not completely outclassed by the Crusaders as many, especially the New Zealand media, had predicted they would be.

They were brave, they were focussed, they played with real intent.

Sadly, though, on the day they were just not good enough.

Now some in the South African media are dubbing the Lions’ effort as a complete failure. One writer in particular has been almost bitter at their loss, suggesting that their performance was “underwhelming” and asking whether we should write it off to “travel fatigue” or whether the Lions were outthought, and then outplayed physically and tactically.

I guess, if the playing fields had been level, and neither side gained any advantage from the distances and travel involved, and if both teams had been given sufficient time to prepare for the game, we might be able to better judge whether this game represents an abject failure by the Lions.

The fact remains that only one team has ever won a final away from home, and that was the Crusaders in 2017. Even that win came on the back of a red card shown to Kwagga Smith and the Lions being forced to play with 14 men for the bulk of that final game.

What then of this year’s final?

Let’s begin our analysis by emphasising that the Lions were given no chance before the kick-off. Pundits, fans, bookmakers, private bets in the pub, media scribes, none gave the Lions a chance. (Including the aforementioned writer who is now so bitterly disappointed in their underwhelming performance!)

They went onto that field in Christchurch without the weight of expectation they had to deal with at Ellis Park the year before. This gave them the freedom to play the game as they would want to, rather than having to focus on playing low-risk “finals” rugby.

In doing so they revealed a certain mongrel, a fighting spirit and focus that some had thought was missing from the 2018 Lions.  They kept fighting right to the end, even after going 20-3 down in the first half. They even gave themselves a chance in the second half before the Crusaders finally put the game to bed. They created chances, they forced the Crusaders onto the back foot for long stretches of the game, and they dominated possession and territory throughout the game.

The Lions’ real problem lay in their inability to make the most of their scoring chances.

In the end, it was the superior defence of the Crusaders that won the game. Their defence, and their uncanny ability to make the most of their attacking chances and score points when they were on offer, saw the ‘Saders take their 9th Super Rugby title.

Jake White will be well pleased with the result, not so much with the Crusaders winning the title, but with a result built on rock solid defence. Jake is on record saying that defence wins matches.

The Crusaders, without a doubt, made defence their key weapon on Saturday. (If the truth be told, it has been their key weapon all season.)

Looking back on this game, it is evident that the Crusaders are very comfortable when defending. Many teams become a little rattled when they are forced into extended periods of defence. There is an air of concern, panic even, when a team has to make tackle after tackle, after tackle.

Not so with the Crusaders. Their defence appears to be viewed as an opportunity to dominate the collisions and force the attackers onto the back foot and panicky decisions with the ball in hand.

In simple terms, that is why they have conceded the fewest tries in the entire 2018 competition, just 46, if we add the two scored by the Lions on Saturday.

It is all about pressure. Massive defensive pressure.

On Saturday the Crusaders did what they have done to every team they have played in 2018. They turned on the defensive pressure and used their defence as an offensive weapon, often gaining meters of territory as they pushed the Lions back with the ball in hand.

Time and again, they forced the Lions further and further away from the goal line through the sheer weight of that defensive pressure.

The Lions would launch a massive attack, using their heaviest artillery to carry the ball at the Crusaders’ wall of defenders, only to be stopped and then driven back, time after time.

Just that simple defensive tactic drew much of the sting from the Lions’ attack, as the pack of forwards would have to turn and scramble back to reset themselves in the ruck over the tackle, with slow ball emerging as the Crusaders used the seconds to reset their defences for the next Lions’ attack.

If we go to the match statistics, we see the Lions’ carried the ball 165 times, and made 722 meters with the ball in hand. That equates to just 4,4 meters per carry, on average. In contrast to their season stats where the average carry is much closer to 6,3 meters. This tells us how the Lions were shut down by the Crusaders. The Crusaders made a massive 217 tackles in this game, missing just 25 for a tackle success rate of 91%.

Perhaps the most telling of all the defensive statistics is that the Crusaders made an almost mindboggling 49 dominant tackles!

The Lions might well have had 71% of the territorial advantage, but the Crusaders did not give them room to use it!

The Lions defensive woes have been a frequent subject of discussion in 2018, but this week they too stepped up a gear, their stats for this game were much better than in previous weeks. Making 161 tackles, they missed 25, for a success rate of 88%, with 11 dominant tackles.

When you are knocked back in the tackle 49 times in a game, and then forced to scramble to recover what was good attacking ball, you are likely to struggle. And the Lions struggled.

The pressure exerted by the Crusaders defence created all kinds of problems for the Lions on attack. The accuracy of their passing game suffered as they started to throw hopeful passes rather than their more usual accurate passing.  Their total of 170 passes saw no less than 28 going astray, almost 17% of their ball wasted in this way. Whilst they made 12 offloads in the game, much of this offload-ball was desperation offloading rather than the pinpoint accuracy that releases a runner into space.

The lack of a short-passing and offloading-into-space game was perhaps the biggest weakness in the entire Lions game. They simply did not create the complexity and pressure that would cause the Crusaders to rethink their defensive array. Their ball-in-the-hand decision making was poor.

When Ruan Combrinck sold a dummy and then carried the ball close to 50m, almost to the Crusaders’ goal line in the 4th minute, he was dragged down by David Havili just short of a score. Yet all it needed was a quick pass or an offload, and the Lions would probably have scored their opening try! Combrinck had Cyle Brink on his left shoulder, Malcolm Marx wide on the right and in the clear, with Kwagga Smith ranging up four meters behind Brink. A short pass to Brink would have given the ball to one of the most destructive finishers in the business, at pace and within 5 meters of the goal line. Nobody stops him from there. A long pass out to the right had Marx in the clear, with 15 meters to go. With his power and momentum, nobody stops him from there. Even an offload to Smith would have meant trouble for the Crusaders. Sadly, none of those options were exercised, and the Lions attack foundered as the Crusaders scrambled back.

We can perhaps contrast this moment with the Crusaders first try, by Seta Tamanivalu in the 20th minute. It all started with a beautiful short pass by Kieran Read moments earlier, just in the split second before he took a tackle.

The pass put flanker Heiden Bedwell-Curtis into a gap and he carried the ball through for another 8 to 10m. The Crusaders now had go-forward momentum with the Lions scrambling back to defend. A couple of short passes and Tamanivalu was over in the corner.

It was moments such as those, the clinical versus the blunderbuss, that was the biggest difference between the two sides on Saturday.

As the game progressed, the defensive pressure exerted on the Lions had the expected effect on their flyhalf. He dropped further and further into his safe zone and started to take the ball in a static position. When Jantjies takes the ball going forward, running onto it, he is wonderfully unpredictable and exciting to watch; when he simply stands, receives and kicks or passes, he is very ordinary. He deprives his back division of momentum, and his kicking game deteriorates markedly in timing and accuracy. On Saturday he made just 9 meters with the ball in hand, which is a telling statistic for a man who is supposed to be a running flyhalf.

Saturday was yet another of those games where Elton Jantjies proved that he simply cannot take the pressure on the biggest stage.

Poor decisions, poor kicking, and then there were two horrendous errors, the first when he launched a mindless midfield high kick that gave Richie Mo’unga the opportunity to counter-attack and ended with David Havili’s try, and then his brain explosion when he picked the ball up outside his in-goal area, took it back, and dotted it down, handing a 5m scrum to the Crusaders, from which the Lions conceded a set-piece penalty and 3 points on the board.

As the game progressed Jantjies became more and more static, with a tendency for pop-passes rather than running, all standing way back from the gain line.

If I may quote former All Blacks scrumhalf Justin Marshall, who said in commentary “This is Elton Jantjies at his worst” after yet another mistake by the flyhalf.

He was a defensive liability as well, missing three of his seven tackle attempts, as the Crusaders, predictably, attacked his channel at every opportunity.

In all he handled the ball just 34 times, kicked it 9 times, and passed it 25 times, with one pass going astray, and one handling error. Consider that Kwagga Smith carried the ball 16 times and Malcolm Marx made 11 carries, Ruan Dreyer 10, and you will get the picture of a flyhalf who was somewhat reticent with the ball in hand.

Enough about Elton Jantjies.

The Lions built their 2018 campaign on three rock-solid foundation stones. Their set-pieces, being the scrums and lineouts, and then their driving maul off the lineout.

It is a power game, which sets up their backs to run off “hot” ball going forward.

The Crusaders knew exactly what to expect from the Lions, and they worked out exactly what to do to stop the Lions in their tracks.

Every lineout was contested, and every attempt to set the driving maul was quickly and efficiently snuffed out. Time and again the Crusaders timed their counter-drive to perfection and forced the Lions’ lineout into reverse gear as they attempted to get their maul rolling.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this set-piece strategy was the Lions inability to change tactics. When they saw that the maul was being effectively countered, why on earth did they persist with the tactic. It was as predictable as this morning’s sunrise.

Surely there should have been a “Plan B” – why was Warren Whiteley not telling his team to try something else? Their general lineout play was very solid, so why was there no variation? There are so many options in the modern lineout that one was a bit astounded at the Lions’ lack of imagination!

In fact, the entire lineout maul issue perhaps illustrates a weakness in Warren Whiteley’s tactical leadership skills. As inspirational as he might be as a captain and leader, his tactical nous must be questioned.

In the second half, the 59th minute, the Lions gained a penalty. They were well behind on the scoreboard, but a quick try might just have given them the momentum they needed to start putting some pressure on the Crusaders. Instead of a kick to the corner, Ruan Combrinck is handed the ball and told to have a long range attempt. He missed, and the game went back to the middle of the field. No territorial advantage, and no chance for setting up a try.

It was simply the wrong option, Period.

Another interesting example came while Ryan Crotty was off the field in the naughty chair. The Lions had another penalty and were close to the Crusaders’ line.

This time they went for touch but why didn’t they go for the scrum? The penalty was in the middle of the field, and the Crusaders were defending one short at the back. A scrum ball opened up all manner of possibilities to crack the Crusaders’ defence.

Why did Whiteley choose a lineout?

The other Lions’ weapon, their scrummaging, was also targeted by the Crusaders, but not to the same level of disruption as was seen in the driving mauls. Strangely, the Lions only had the scrum put-in twice, and lost one scrum to a penalty, so their success rate is a mere 50%, but they also succeeded in putting pressure on the ‘Saders scrum, with 5 put-ins and one loss. Parity, I would suggest.

The bottom line to this game was that the Crusaders worked out how to nullify the Lions’ strengths, while relying on a massive defensive effort to shut the door on the Lions’ open running game.

The Crusaders knew that Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith were a serious threat over the ball on the ground, so they simply worked at sealing off the ball in the tackle and clearing any and all Lions on the fringes or near the ball. It was a masterful display of cleaning out, sometimes pushing the very edge of legality, but that is what good teams do! The Crusaders took the ball into the ruck 93 times, and only lost the ball 4 times in the process. (The Lions were very good in this respect too, with 130 rucks and losing the ball just twice!)

Instead of focussing their turnover attempts on the ball on the ground, the Crusaders went looking for turnovers in the tackle and in broken play, where they managed a huge 13 turnovers.

If this game had to be summed up in one sentence, it would be that the Lions lacked patience and imagination, while the Crusaders relied on clinical precision and massive defence to win the trophy.

Some players deserve mention:

Crusaders flyhalf Richie Mo’unga was named Man of the Match, and certainly deserved the honour.  In this game he completely overshadowed his opponent, running at him and slipping through a Jantjies tackle once, as he went on to beat four defenders, while making one line break and a tackle burst.

The stats highlight the fact that Mo’unga took some excellent attacking options. The Crusaders flyhalf made 71m with the ball in hand. He passed the ball 18 times, without a single missed pass. He did miss 3 tackles, though, but made 3 others. He kicked the ball just 5 times, but with pinpoint accuracy each time.

Kieran Read was immense, both on defence with 19 tackles and putting pressure on the Lions with the ball in hand in 16 carries. His calm leadership was evident as he supported his captain Whitelock with quiet words of advice.

Credit should go to the Crusaders forwards as a unit. In the bad old days we used to talk about being able to throw a blanket over the pack of forwards as they roamed the field together, and that was how the Crusaders front five played on Saturday.

Matt Todd was massive on defence, making 22 tackles, and also carried the ball 7 times.

Ruan Combrinck is starting to show some of the form of two years ago, and should be a dead certainty for Bok selection while Sbu Nkosi is out injured. His decision making needs work. As does his defence!

Franco Mostert: Boy, are the Lions going to miss him! An immense performance by the big lock and undoubtedly the Lions best on the day.

And so, Super Rugby 2018 is done and dusted.

Well done Crusaders, a thoroughly deserved title!

The scorers:

For Crusaders:
Tries: Tamanivalu, Havili, Drummond, Barrett
Cons: Mo’unga 4
Pens: Mo’unga 3
Yellow Card: Crotty

For Lions:
Tries: Brink, Marx
Con: Jantjies
Pens: Jantjies 2

The Teams:

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