Lions face the ultimate test against Crusaders
It’s disheartening to scavenge around for positives on this one. The Crusaders have never lost a playoff game at Christchurch. They have remained undefeated at the venue the entire season. Looking back further, it has been 19 games since they lost at home — to the Hurricanes in 2016.
If the Lions are to become Super Rugby champions at the third time of asking, it’s going to take a lot of firsts. This time around they have also looked far less convincing en route to the final. The Jo’burgers have arguably lost the expectation to surprise that used to be their signature under Johan Ackermann; a confidence that there was also something more to offer when the odds doubted them.
Much of the talk leading into the game from the Lions camp has centred on them playing their own game and not falling prey to the jitters of the occasion; play their running game and not stand paralysed by the prospect of a Saders’ counter.
The performance against the Jaguares in the quarters was impressive and against the Waratahs they demonstrated their proclivity to sniff out slips and mistakes. As much as they have been the standout team in recent years in the running game, last week again showed the primacy of forward play among South African teams. They dominated the Tahs in the set pieces and, in Kwagga Smith, Malcolm Marx and Marnus Schoeman, they took advantage of any defensive frailties.
Any chance they have on Saturday will stem from injecting the same level of momentum into their mauls that they did to such great effect last weekend. To enhance that consistency, coach Swys de Bruin revealed that his side will have only one training session this week. Having only arrived in the country on Tuesday evening, the team won’t make an attempt to adjust to the New Zealand time zone. To avoid jet lag, they will head down for breakfast at 11am every morning and to bed at 11pm. It’s a strategy that had mixed results in their last Australasia tour.
No one is giving the Lions any hope, for good reason. Every aspect of this Crusaders team has been immense for more than two years. They have no detectable weaknesses and should defend their title comfortably. Whether that sense of inevitability will emancipate the Lions from pressure and allow them to take it to the Kiwis remains to be seen.