So it comes down to this: the Lions have to beat two of the Hurricanes, Chiefs and Crusaders in successive weekends to win their first Super Rugby title since 1993.
To put that into perspective, this season the five Australian franchises played 26 games against New Zealand opposition and lost all 26.
To further delineate the mountain the Lions have to climb, they have got this far without playing a Kiwi side. It is true to say that this was not the case in 2016, when they reached the final, but they lost 20-3 to the Hurricanes in Wellington. Saturday’s game is the first meeting between the two since then, and you have to go back to 2007 to find the last time the Lions beat the Hurricanes. It was also the only time the Lions beat the Hurricanes.
So it is not helpful to suggest that home advantage will propel the Lions to the title as surely as night follows day. That became abundantly clear when they battled to overcome the Sharks last week, having comfortably dismissed the Durban franchise a week earlier at King’s Park. Pressure does odd things to people.
The best that can be said of an error-strewn performance is that, when it really mattered, Ruan Combrinck found his inner hero and boomed over an unlikely, match-winning penalty. Compare that with the Stormers match against the Chiefs on the same day and you can understand why the Lions are genuine title contenders.
The Stormers began the season well, but they were rudely awakened on tour in New Zealand. The Cape Town franchise does not make enough of the possession that comes its way and suffers from schoolboy defensive errors in tight situations.
It was almost comical to watch the Chiefs send Shaun Stevenson over for the winning try in the 76th minute. The visitors took the ball through 10 phases, then Aaron Cruden looked up, saw that Stevenson was standing unmarked on the right wing, and threw him a looping pass with not a Stormers defender in sight.
The key is that New Zealand teams know how to play for 80 minutes. They seem able to shake off the effects of crossing time zones, and play their best rugby when it matters. So clearly, the Lions cannot expect a jetlagged and jaded Hurricanes unit on Saturday; they will get the best the men from Wellington have to offer, which is as good as any team in the competition.
Remember that the Lions would not have topped the league table had it not been for the ’Canes beating the Crusaders in Christchurch on the final weekend of log play. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that the ’Canes have been the best side in the competition in the weeks following the closure of the June international window. And for what they achieved against the Crusaders, you might say that the Lions owe them a favour.
Even the season statistics produced by Opta Sport underline the task at hand. The Lions have been lauded all year for their ability to put a player into space with the ball; “clean breaks” is how it is paraphrased. They have also scored the second-most tries and points. So, have a guess which team is superior to the Lions in all three of these areas — that’s right, the Hurricanes. For most of the rest of the stats there is scarcely anything to divide the two. It comes back to that statistical intangible: the will to win.
That, clearly, is an important legacy of the Johan Ackermann years. The Lions players who have been catapulted into the Springbok side seem to have it in spades. Ross Cronjé and Combrinck were not obvious world beaters when they played in the same side at Michaelhouse. They were journeyman players at the Sharks and the Lions right up until the moment when the Lions re-entered Super Rugby at the expense of the Kings.
Somehow, Ackermann has found a way to lift his players by emphasising the team environment. That, presumably, is why he has been head-hunted by Gloucester, a team historically difficult to beat at home but less so on the road. It is up to the players energised by Ackermann to give him the perfect send-off.
So, can it be done? Elton Jantjies has been near the top of the goal-kicking charts all season and it can be assumed that last week’s loss of radar was an aberration. At the back of the flyhalf’s mind, however, will be the pummelling he got from the ’Canes in last year’s final. They targeted him in the defensive channel and he was found wanting. So, the Lions need to protect their match winner without giving space to the visitors as a direct result.
It is certainly not the time to change tactics. The Lions have won friends and influenced Springbok selections with a dynamic, ball-in-hand game, far removed from the Barbarian mantra of run the ball at all costs. If they play their “A” game and give it full concentration throughout, the win will come. A final in Johannesburg is its own reward and any thoughts of how to win that one need to be put to the very back of the collective consciousness.