For a third successive year, South African super rugby side the Lions have made it to the final where they will, for a second year running, lock horns with the Canterbury Crusaders, the most successful team in the 23-year history of the competition.
Last year, the Lions took on the Crusaders at home but were beaten 17-25, with their coach, Johan Ackermann, to blame. Ackermann let the side down in 2016 too, when the Lions were beaten by the Hurricanes.
This year, the task will be harder as the final is being played at the Crusaders’ home ground.
The Crusaders have won the trophy eight times, the Lions not even once. In fact, South African teams have only won the tournament thrice, with the Bulls being the lone team to succeed. The last time the Bulls won was in 2010. Australia has not done that well either, with four wins in the 22 years; the Brumbies have won twice, and the Reds and Waratahs one apiece.
Teams from New Zealand have won 15 of the 22 finals since the tournament began in 1996, with every team in that country having won at least once. Only on three occasions has a New Zealand team not figured in the final. The odds are thus heavily weighted in favour of New Zealand.
The Lions, at least, have a new coach this year and hopefully Sys de Bruin will not make the same fundamental errors that Ackermann did. But de Bruin did not sound too optimistic when, soon after making the finals, he characterised the Crusaders as “unreal” and said he was hoping for a miracle in Saturday’s (August 4) final.
Said de Bruin: “I saw a few miracles happen today (the Lions’ win over the Waratahs). The bounce of the ball went our way and I am very thankful that we are able to go to the best team in the world.
“I believe in miracles and this team has proven it. So anything can happen. The Crusaders are the favourites – they are a very good team – but it is still 80 minutes between four white lines so it will be interesting.”
Some pundits were already saying after the Crusaders overwhelmed the Hurricanes in the semi-finals that the Canterbury outfit might as well be crowned champions then and there. New Zealand rugby writer Gregor Paul wrote: “The Crusaders might as well be crowned champions now. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to ask them to play the final – as, barring some kind of impossible to foresee disaster, they are going to win it.
“There is too much quality in their personnel and too much certainty and trust in how they are playing, that no other side in the competition gets remotely close.”
That may be a trifle optimistic. The Lions are a good team, but they will have to, more than anything else, overcome a big mental hurdle.
Playing in Canterbury will not help their cause one bit. If the weather is dry, then they will probably be more competitive. But if it is wet and cold, then the Crusaders would be overwhelming favourites. They seem to be adept at winning those tight, grim battles that are often decided on penalties.
However there is one factor that can screw up the final and that is the choice of referee, with Australia’s Angus Gardner set to officiate. There are two kinds of referees in rugby: one type stamps his authority on a game very early on, and then more or less becomes invisible, with the players toeing the line, having understood from those early manoeuvres that the ref is not to be toyed with.
The other type is the Gardner type, one who thinks the game is all about him, is overly verbose in explaining each and everything to the players, and unnecessarily making chit-chat without shutting his trap and letting the game flow.
No matter how well the Lions or Crusaders play, Gardner could well be the decisive factor in the 23rd super rugby final. Don’t say you have not been warned.