Knockout rugby is not for everyone: Lions could roar, Sharks could flounder

Now for the rematch: Rohan Janse van Rensburg of the Lions evades Ben Volavola of the Crusaders during the match in Johannesburg in April. (Lee Warren, Gallo)

Now for the rematch: Rohan Janse van Rensburg of the Lions evades Ben Volavola of the Crusaders during the match in Johannesburg in April. (Lee Warren, Gallo)

With a gun to the head, knowing that second chances disappear with log play, the Crusaders are exceptional, as seven Super Rugby titles attest. Diametrically opposite sit the Stormers, who have won just one knockout contest in seven goes, against the Waratahs at Newlands in 2010. They went on to lose a memorable final against the Bulls in Soweto.

There is reason to believe that this melancholy sequence may be extended this week, with the arrival of the Chiefs.
The Stormers are scratching around for a flyhalf and rested a few key players in last week’s canter against the Kings. The June international window did them no favours and they are well short of the momentum required at this stage of the season.

Three of the Stormers’ best players, Juan de Jongh, Cheslin Colbe and Seabelo Senatla, are preparing to fly to Rio to represent South Africa in rugby sevens at the Olympics. Several others will be leaving Cape Town for more lucrative gigs overseas as soon as the Stormers are eliminated. It is not an ideal base from which to take on the team that seemed destined to top the Australasian log until last week’s defeat to the Highlanders.

Equally, the odds are stacked against the Sharks, who take on the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday. We have been here before, but if the idea of a fixture is to produce a contest, then somebody forgot to tell Sanzaar (South Africa New Zealand Australia Argentina Rugby).

Last Saturday night there were two possible scenarios for the Sharks: a one-hour flight from Durban to Johannesburg, or 18 hours across the time zones to New Zealand.

The last 20 minutes in Buenos Aires, when the Lions’ B team crumbled against the Jaguares, happened in the early hours of Sunday morning South African time.

It might be argued that it was bad luck that the 135th of the fixtures announced last year should have so much bearing on the quarterfinals. It could easily have been a rubber as dead as the game between the Cheetahs and the Bulls. But no one at Sanzaar seems concerned that their travel plans would see the Sharks arriving in Wellington on Thursday for a game on Saturday.

This robs the game of the frisson required for top-level sport. The Sharks would have spent Thursday recovering from the flight and trying to adjust to local time, and Friday will have been devoted to a light captain’s run.

The match itself is likely to follow a familiar pattern: the Sharks will come out blazing, throwing everything into the half-hour before their bodies start to protest. After that it will be one-way traffic.

That should not be the case at Ellis Park, where the Lions host the Crusaders in what should be the best fixture of the lot.

In log play, the Crusaders won 43-37 in Johannesburg during a sequence of eight successive victories. Together with the 50-17 hammering by the Hurricanes a month later, these were the moments that defined the Lions’ season. Instead of going into their shells, they got more and more adventurous.

It remains to be seen whether Johan Ackermann will change tack now that the knockout rounds have begun, but the chances are that he will stick to the methods that have got the Lions this far. Statistics tell the tale of a side that excels going forward and wins the ball back at the breakdown on a regular basis. Their opponents are the best in the competition at clean breaks, passing and offloading.

So if both teams love to attack, the game should be settled in favour of the side that dominates the set pieces and the rucks. That is the dichotomy central to the sport: you can’t excel in broken play unless you can win your own ball in the scrums and line-outs.

Two things conspire to make the Lions favourites: altitude and travel. When the Crusaders won at Ellis Park in log play, they were at the end of a two-week visit to this country. They beat the Sharks in Durban in week one, and approached the game against the Lions with the attitude that anything they achieved was a bonus, because they had targeted one win.

This time around the Crusaders have to cope with the same problems the Sharks have, although travelling east to west across the time zones is, according to the scientists, less onerous than going the other way. Like the Sharks, the Crusaders are likely to target the application of scoreboard pressure in the first half. Unlike the Sharks, they have the team that could succeed in doing so.

The other quarterfinal, between the Brumbies and the Highlanders in Canberra, should be an away win. A wise man suggested that the honourable thing would have been for the Brumbies to withdraw and allow the Blues to compete in their place. This has been a dismal year for Australian rugby, what with losing 3-0 in the Test series against England, and the Brumbies owe their place to the bizarre structure foisted upon the teams by Sanzaar.

All other things being equal, then, next week’s semifinals should see the Hurricanes play the Chiefs in Wellington and the Lions take on the Highlanders in Johannesburg. Local fans would then hope that the Chiefs could somehow defy the travel odds to beat the Hurricanes, meaning they would have to fly back to this country as sacrificial lambs for the Lions in the final.

In the cracks between this reasoning lie the vast amounts of money made by bookmakers every day.

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