Lions lose bite in steep final
Last-minute heroics too little too late against Crusaders
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.
VICTORIOUS The Crusaders celebrate after beating the Lions in the 2017 Super Rugby final match at the Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg yesterday