The Crusaders and the Lions meet at Ellis Park on Saturday in a clash between the two form sides of 2017.
By dispatching the Chiefs and the Hurricanes respectively last weekend, there is no doubt that the winner on Saturday will have earned the right to be called the best club side in the world.
Last time out we looked at the reasons that the Crusaders will win the trophy. Let’s take the opposing view and here are five reasons why that team will be the Lions:
Home field advantage
Topping the log in Super Rugby is a really good idea if you want to win the title. As the Lions were able to leapfrog the Crusaders in the final round of matches and grab that sport, they now get to host their New Zealand rivals at Ellis Park on Saturday instead of heading to Christchurch to play.
This is obviously a broken system as the two teams played different opponents throughout the year and to be taken seriously as a competition the final MUST be played on a neutral ground in the future. In 2017, however, this is the lot that has been cast and the Lions have to fancy themselves on their home patch.
Since the beginning of the professional era in 1996, not one team has crossed the Indian Ocean for a final and returned victoriously. The Crusaders had to travel 16 hours to get to a final that will be played at over 1,700 metres above sea level. Oh, and there will also be over 60,000 home fans cheering the Lions on.
All this combined is the literal definition of a home field advantage.
They will stick to the game plan
Faced with a Hurricane’s barrage in the first half of their semifinal matchup it would have been easy for the Lions to divert away from their game plan. Instead, the side heeded the words of coach Johan Ackermann and continued to play their own style of game.
The result was one of the most impressive turnarounds we have ever seen in a Finals match as the Lions clawed back the Hurricanes to emerge as the 44-29 victors.
Ackermann wanted his side to play direct – yet free flowing – rugby. The idea was that the Hurricanes would tire as the game wore on and their pressure defense would start faltering leaving gaps to exploit. This is exactly how the Lions took control of the game as the Hurricanes struggled to get off of their line defensively.
Ackermann clearly has the complete trust of his players and that will serve him well if the Crusaders jump out to a lead this weekend.
They can win the collisions
The Lions are a South African team in their playing style. They want to send powerful ball runners down exposed channels and use that momentum to push forward repeatedly until they cross the try line. It is not particularly groundbreaking as a tactic, but it is still an effective way to win games if deployed correctly.
The way that the Lions do this is by winning the collision. Scrum-half Ross Cronje is key here – perhaps even more so than No. 10 Elton Jantjes – as Cronje has the vision and passing ability to hit the right runner more often than not. The pack is loaded with gain line breakers and it is those players that will be relied upon to suck in the Crusaders defenders before the ball is swung wide to their finishers on the outside.
The Crusaders are fearsome defensively, but the Lions have the artillery in their pack to dominate the collision area and come away with a win.
Recent scares will help them
The Chiefs weren’t the only team to push the Lions hard since the playoffs began. After beating the Sharks twice (comfortably) during round robin play, the Lions needed a late penalty to get past the Durban side in the quarterfinals.
The problem has been that the Lions just haven’t started matches well over the past couple of weeks. They have been loose with the ball, they have given away silly penalties, and they have just not been at it until 20 minutes have gone by. If they start at this same subpar level in the final then the Crusaders will jump out to a lead and this is not a side you want to be attempting to run down from behind.
The Lions though have learned their lesson. Much of the talk over the week leading up to the final has been about how they have to start faster and with more discipline in everything that they do. The speed the Chiefs played at last week hurt the Lions, but now they know how the Kiwis like to play with that tempo. Expect a much more solid opening quarter from the home side here.
Last year still hurts
The Lions have been here before.
Just 12 months ago they reached the Super Rugby Final only to fall at the last hurdle. The defeat was a tough one to swallow, but it was the way that they failed to trouble the Hurricanes in Wellington that has been festering and bothering the South African side for the past year.
The one thing that can be counted on in the 2017 final is that the Lions are going to give this their best shot. The Lions will throw everything they have at the Crusaders – pushed on by their home crowd – and they will not die wondering about what could have been.
You should never underestimate the motivational power of losing and the Lions will be out to show that they learned from last season by winning the whole thing on Saturday.
What do you think? Any other areas they Crusaders have the advantage? Let us know!
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