It is a real shame the build-up to this Super Rugby final between the Lions and Crusaders has been dominated by a refereeing appointment.
The focus should be on the fact we have the two best teams in the competition this year battling it out in what could be an epic fixture.
Losing a total of just two games in their 34 combined this season means there can be no arguments these two have not deserved a place in the final. It’s lethal attack taking on an incredible defence this weekend and Saturday promises to be an absorbing contest from the off.
The Lions’ come-from-behind victory over the Hurricanes showed just how far they have come and their performances in the final quarter of matches this term should be a big concern for the Crusaders – they’ve scored 30 tries in the closing 20 minutes, more than any other side.
On paper it seems plenty is leaning in the Lions’ favour and with South African teams having won 9 of their last 12 finals at home to New Zealand sides, it looks to be a tough ask for the visitors to upset their hosts. Are they about to give Johan Ackermann an ideal send-off?
Standing in their path is New Zealand’s strongest side this year, who have built their game on solid defence, which was typified in their quarter and semi-final. The Round 12 shut-out of a Hurricanes side that had averaged seven tries per game before their meeting was another that proved this team is the real deal under new head coach Scott Robertson. If they can replicate that then the title could go their way.
It would be an eighth Super Rugby trophy for the Crusaders, but to achieve that they must do something no team has done since 2000; win a final outside their own country. They have also lost their last two final appearances which Robertson and co. will be desperate to change.
The Lions meanwhile will have last year’s final defeat in their minds and will no doubt use that as an extra driving force as they look to repeat 2016’s eliminator performance against this very opponent. However, these Crusaders are much improved under Robertson this season.
It’s a fascinating prospect of a game of that there’s no doubt but with conditions set to be perfect for running rugby, we just feel it’s going to be a great deal tougher for the Crusaders to contain the Lions than their most recent knockout rivals in the rain. This Lions side are relentless and wear teams down with the last quarter again set to be the defining period where the Lions could turn the screw and ultimately seal that elusive first title in front of over 60,000 supporters. What a way that would be for Ackermann to say goodbye.
The last time these teams met: The Lions were too good for the Crusaders in last year’s quarter-final, winning 42-25 thanks to tries from Courtnall Skosan, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Malcolm Marx, Ruan Combrinck and Ross Cronjé. Elton Jantjies kicked 17 points in the victory. In reply the Crusaders’ try-scorers were Ryan Crotty, Mitchell Drummond and a late crossing from Ben Volavola with the game already gone.
Players to watch:
For Lions: What a lift the impact Kwagga Smith has been to the Lions since his return from Sevens duty. A player full of energy who belies his lack of size with tenacious carries and workrate, his presence cannot be underestimated and he will be crucial to the Lions this week. His link work with Jaco Kriel and Ruan Ackermann is where the Lions will look to gain an edge, along with their hugely physical tight five.
For Crusaders: If the New Zealanders are to win in the hostile atmosphere of Ellis Park they need dominant games from Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty, which would lift those around them. Of course Richie Mo’unga must win his personal battle with Elton Jantjies and in what may be an open game, the former’s running game could well see him do that. How the Crusaders cope with the sold-out crowd and altitude is key.
Team news: The Lions have named an unchanged matchday 23. On the back of a come-from-behind 44-29 victory over the Hurricanes in the semi-final, it’s no surprise Johan Ackermann has stuck with the same squad as they look to win a Super Rugby title in his swansong season. Jaco Kriel continues to captain the side in the absence of Warren Whiteley and he’s again joined by Kwagga Smith and Ruan Ackermann in the back-row, with Franco Mostert and Andries Ferreira the lock partnership. Ross Cronjé and Elton Jantjies will control from the half-back positions.
The Crusaders have been boosted by the news that Kieran Read and Owen Franks have been passed fit for Saturday. The duo were doubtful after Read limped off with a knee injury with 10 minutes to go and Franks was taken off at half-time with an Achilles niggle in the win over the Chiefs in the semi-final. But they have now been declared fit and will start against the Lions, meaning the Crusaders also name the same squad.
Form: The Lions are on a 14-match winning streak at the moment after they bounced back from an away loss to Jaguares way back on March 11. Meanwhile the Crusaders suffered their only defeat of the season to the Hurricanes on July 15 but have responded well in the knockouts.
Prediction: We’re in for a thriller of a final, possibly one of the best ever, in Johannesburg. And it’s a home win for us. Lions by three.
2016: Lions won 42-25 in Johannesburg
2016: Crusaders won 43-37 in Johannesburg
2015: Crusaders won 34-6 in Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 28-7 in Johannesburg
2012: Crusaders won 23-13 in Johannesburg
2010: Crusaders won 46-19 in Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 32-20 in Johannesburg
2008: Crusaders won 31-6 in Christchurch
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 Corne 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 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge
Date: Saturday, August 5
Venue: Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 16:00 local (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, Marius van der Westhuizen
TMO: Marius Jonker