Lions lose bite in steep fi­nal

Last-minute hero­ics too lit­tle too late against Cru­saders

CityPress - - Sport - sports@city­press.co.za

The Lions, who had gone and es­tab­lished them­selves as the come­back kings of the knock­out stages of this year’s Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion, ran out of lives at the worst pos­si­ble time when they lost to the Cru­saders at a packed El­lis Park last night.

Jo­han Ack­er­mann’s men, who made yet an­other stir­ring bid to win against the odds, had an­other slug­gish start and flanker Kwagga Smith’s 39th minute red card for tak­ing David Hav­ili out in the air was to blame for their sec­ond fi­nal de­feat in suc­ces­sive sea­sons.

The Lions’ heart­break (they failed to send the Glouces­ter-bound Ack­er­mann off in style) handed the Cru­saders their eighth Su­per Rugby ti­tle, their first since 2008, af­ter a sea­son in which they lost just once.

The win also means it is only the sixth time an away team has won the Su­per Rugby fi­nal, the fourth by the Cru­saders, but the first by a team that had to cross the In­dian Ocean to do so. It is also for­mer Cru­saders player Scott Robertson’s first ti­tle as coach in his first year as the head of the team.

The Cru­saders’ win was thanks to a pack that didn’t take a back­ward step, clin­i­cally took its chances, had typ­i­cal thiev­ing at the break­down by Matt Todd, got a ma­ture per­for­mance from cen­tre Ryan Crotty and a barn­storm­ing ef­fort from winger Seta Ta­mani­valu.

But, in a way, it could be ar­gued that the game was over as a con­test long be­fore Smith’s in­dis­cre­tion. One doesn’t have to have been a fly on the au­di­to­rium walls at El­lis Park to have worked out that the Lions’ coaches would have urged their charges not to give the vis­i­tors a head start.

Yet, 12 min­utes into the game, they were 12-0 down af­ter an 80m try against the run of play by Ta­mani­valu and a Jack Good­hue ef­fort that marked the first time the Cru­saders went into the hosts’ half and had ball in hand.

For the first try, fly half El­ton Jan­tjies had been hit hard in pos­ses­sion by Cru­saders cap­tain Kieran Read just out­side the vis­i­tors’ 22m line, cough­ing the ball up in the process for An­dries Coet­zee to kick it and pin­ball it into Ta­mani­valu’s hands, who out­paced the de­fence down the left wing to score.

Three things hurt the Lions in the first half: they made mis­takes in con­tact; had no ter­ri­tory de­spite hog­ging the pos­ses­sion; and when they did have the ball, their de­ci­sion-mak­ing sug­gested they had no com­po­sure.

Even be­fore the Cru­saders’ open-side flanker Todd started killing them at the break­down, the Lions weren’t ex­actly clin­i­cal in that area, ei­ther spilling the ball, not clean­ing prop­erly or hold­ing on to it on the ground.

While they had most of the pos­ses­sion and the likes of Mal­colm Marx, Jaco Kriel and Ruan Ack­er­mann made de­cent yardage over the ad­van­tage line, they couldn’t, for the life of them, get out of their own half once they lost the ball at the rucks.

When it came to de­ci­sion-mak­ing, the Cru­saders’ line speed in de­fence and con­test­ing at the break­downs meant ev­ery­thing was rushed in those ar­eas. And when the vis­i­tors were first to score, through Read, in the sec­ond half, that was pretty much game over.

The in­tro­duc­tion of Faf de Klerk’s quick­sil­ver ser­vice did have the ef­fect of ramp­ing up the pace just as al­ti­tude did its thing with the tir­ing Cru­saders, yield­ing both their tries through front row­ers Marx and Corné Fourie.

But 14 men against the best de­fence in the com­pe­ti­tion were just never go­ing to hack it, what­ever the Lions’ late hero­ics.

PHOTO: MUZI NTOMBELA / BACKPAGEPIX

VIC­TO­RI­OUS The Cru­saders cel­e­brate af­ter beat­ing the Lions in the 2017 Su­per Rugby fi­nal match at the El­lis Park Sta­dium, Jo­han­nes­burg yes­ter­day

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