That the Lions lost their third successive super rugby final — to the Crusaders for a second successive time — came as no surprise, for nobody really gave them much of a chance to take the trophy home. The bookies, always the best informed, had the Crusaders at a dollar and the Lions at eight dollars. The final score was 37-18.
But there were some indications that once again — as in 2016 and 2017 — coaching decisions had played a part in the defeat. One amazing stat that emerged during the final was that Lions fly-half Elton Jantjies had played every game of the season in its entirety. (He also played the entire 82 minutes of the final).
One has to wonder why coach Sys de Bruin put such a strain on the man. The super rugby season is always arduous and in recent years it has become even more of a strain as there is a break in June for international games to take place. This was devised as a way to give teams the chance to recover from injuries, but in reality a broken season like this is more of a strain than one that runs unbroken from start to finish. Much in the same way that it is easier to run an 800 metres race rather than two 400 metres races with a short break in-between.
Is there really no-one who can fill in at No 10 for the Lions for even 10 minutes of every game, so that Jantjies can recover his breath? What happens if he suffers a serious injury in round six or seven and is out for the season? It gives one food for thought and makes one wonder whether the occasional brain-fades which Jantjies displays are due to the excessive tiredness.
It must be borne in mind that Jantjies is also either the number one or number two fly-half in the national team — and there is a testing series of games coming up from this month until the end-of-season tours of the northern hemisphere are completed in November. How will the man cope with that?
If a team from South Africa plays in the super rugby final and has to travel, either to New Zealand or Australia, then the travel always takes its toll, much as the jet-lag always affects teams from Australia or New Zealand when they go to South Africa for a one-off game.
The Lions only landed in Christchurch on Wednesday (August 1) and had to play the final on August 4. Thus it is not surprising that one of Australian rugby’s brightest stars of the past, Mark Ella, mooted the idea of playing the final in a third country like Japan, where the spectacle would be better, with a bigger crowd, and also avoid the extensive travel.
Whether Sanzar, the organisation that organises the competition, would look kindly on such an idea remains to be seen. In one sense, it would be good for the crowd that turns up would be much bigger; the stadium in Christchurch had a little under 20,000 people on Saturday. The South African and Australian grounds are much bigger but then very few finals are held in either of these countries. New Zealand has dominated the competition from the start.
To the match itself, the Crusaders had prepared well to counter the rolling maul which the Lions had used to good effect against the Waratahs in the semi-final the previous week. The tactic never got off the ground, with the Lions’ forwards being pushed back as soon as they got the ball and tried to line themselves up to begin the maul.
The Lions dominated in terms of territory and possession but the Crusaders put what little ball they enjoyed to very good use, with fly-half Richie Mo’unga having a blinder, with both his kicking and running being of a very high order. That Jantjies had the occasional brain-fade, kicking away possession needlessly, with one of his kicks to Mo’unga leading directly to a Crusaders’ try, did not help the Lions’ cause in any way.
The Crusaders made more than twice the number of tackles their opponents made, and there were some truly heavy hits. But only one yellow card was dished out, to Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty for a cynical tactic of tackling from the wrong side. The Lions, by the way, are the team with the best disciplinary record in the tournament: a single yellow card.
Forwards Cyle Brink and Malcolm Marx scored for the losers, while winger Seta Tamanivalu, full-back David Havili, replacement scrum-half Mitchell Drummond and lock Scott Barrett went over for the Crusaders.
For those who watched the game on Sky Sports, it must be noted that a good part of the enjoyment comes from having a commentator like Grant Nisbett at the mike. Nisbett, who has now called more than 300 Tests, apart from God knows how many super rugby games, has not lost even a fraction of his deft way with words and it is a joy to listen to the man.
This was the Crusaders ninth title in the tournament’s 23rd year. The Blues have three titles, the Chiefs two and the Hurricanes and Highlanders one apiece. Of the Australian teams, the Brumbies have two and the the Waratahs and Reds one each. And of the South African teams, the Bulls are the lone team to have tasted success with three wins.
Finally, referee Angus Gardner managed to keep his lectures to the minimum and interfered much less with the game than he normally does. One has to thank heavens for this, as he can really spoil a game when he is in schoolmaster mode.