Johan Ackermann’s young squad have already shattered expectations, but a title win in Wellington would mark a historical first.
Writing off the Lions at this point of the season feels like a foolish exercise, especially after having watched Super Rugby’s (statistically) best attacking side put over 80 points on the Crusaders and Highlanders over the last two weeks at Ellis Park.
However there is an issue to address. Ackermann’s decision to rest his top players for that trip to face the Jaguares, in the process conceding the first seed spot, has been pored over and discussed incessantly by ourselves and the rest of you because historically, no side has ever crossed the Indian Ocean and won a Super Rugby final.
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane (apologies in advance Sharks fans…)
1996: Blues 45-21 Sharks, Auckland
2001: Brumbies 36-6 Sharks, Canberra
2009: Bulls 61-17 Chiefs, Pretoria
2012: Chiefs 37-6 Sharks, Hamilton
Not only do teams never win when making the trip, the best a side has ever done is to lose by a margin of 24 points, and that was 20 years ago when Jonah Lomu was one of the try scorers for the Blues.
Go back to the Super 10 era and yes, Queensland did win back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 by winning in first Durban and then Johannesburg. But that was before the professional era.
Perhaps pinning the size of the wins in each of those four matches on the travel factor actually does a disservice to the quality of the teams who triumphed.
The ’96 Blues featured Kiwi greats like Lomu, Zinzan Brooke, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Michael Jones and Carlos Spencer, just as the 2001 Brumbies were packed with Rugby World Cup winners from two years previously in David Giffin, Joe Roff, Stephen Larkham, George Gregan and Jeremy Paul.
Facing the Bulls right in the middle of their pomp was rough luck on the Chiefs too, with six Springboks from the 2007 Rugby World Cup final involved for the hosts.
The possible exception is the 2012 Chiefs, but the quality of their rugby that year at times resembled something from another planet, hinging around the combination of Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams with Liam Messam at his best. Although, it’s worth noting the Sharks had travelled from Brisbane to Cape Town to Hamilton in the space of three weeks and looked exhausted.
Are the 2016 Hurricanes an easier opponent? Four of their players turned out in last year’s World Cup final, and one of those in Coles is a doubt. Recent RWC winners’ medals of course aren’t the single way to dictate the outcome of a Super Rugby final, but they do offer a clear sign of a side’s strength.
The fact remains that no team in the Super Rugby era has crossed from Africa to Australasia or vice-versa and headed back home with the trophy in their luggage.
And three years ago when the Lions lost to the Kings at home yet still won promotion on aggregate back into Super Rugby through the play-off, you would have been sectioned for suggesting they would be the first side to end that run.
What Ackermann and his side have achieved this year, win or lose on Saturday, has been little short of astounding. And there’s more to come too, with Franco Mostert the only confirmed departure from a hungry group who will be expected to make it back-to-back Currie Cup titles as well in the coming months, all collectively playing a brand of rugby thrillingly different to what we’ve witnessed coming out of South Africa in recent years.
Overcoming an excellent Hurricanes team and also the history books is one tall order. But despite the odds being stacked against them, they sure do have a chance.