The Crusaders are the Super Rugby champions after a deserved win over the Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday.
It was a wierd game, made stranger by the red card late in the first half given to Lions back rower Kwagga Smith that nullified the contest until there were about 15 minutes to play.
It was the eighth Super Rugby title for the Crusaders who became the first side to win the world’s premier club competition when crossing the Indian Ocean to play in the final. It was the Christchurch franchise’s first Super Rugby championship since 2008.
Here is a look back at the three keys:
How the Crusaders handle the altitude
Advantage: Crusaders (for 65 minutes)
The Crusaders had clearly watched the Hurricanes game against the Lions a week earlier as they came out of the gate with the same force and tempo as their New Zealand Conference rivals. The strategy here was pretty simple as the Crusaders did everything they could to overwhelm the Lions in the first 20 minutes of the game, looking to build a lead that they could then hang on to when they started to tire in the second half.
Amazingly the Crusaders literally followed this script, hitting the same 22-3 lead that the Hurricanes then blew, before adding another penalty to put up 25 points that seemed irrelevant at the time. With the Lions having been down to 14 men since late in the first half, the game looked over.
Then the wilting began. You can argue that the Crusaders were simply killing time over the course of the last 15 minutes, but the Lions were certainly not going to go down without a fight. The line breaks that had been contained up until that point started to happen and you wonder if the Lions could even have run down that huge margin if Smith had stayed on the field.
Set piece domination will be key
It really didn’t feel like this one came down to the set piece to the extent many were expecting going in.
There were a couple of key set piece moments – such as a late Crusaders lineout steal near their own line that pretty much sealed the game – but the giant war in the set piece just never materialized.
How much of this was down to Smith’s sending off, and how much was because the Crusaders are just so good at everything, is up for debate. The forward packs though were massively important, with the Crusaders getting the better of the game for the first 50 or so minutes before the Lions struck for home a little too late in the piece.
Is this the week the Lions miss Warren Whiteley
Jaco Kriel did a fine job as the Lions captain in this one, but you have to wonder if Warren Whiteley would have been able to stem the Crusaders’ tide at a couple of key moments.
The first of these was early in the game when the Crusaders first got on top. Everyone knew that the Lions would be the stronger side as the game wore on, so it was going to be a question of how many points the New Zealand side could score before that turn around happened. As it was, the answer was too many.
It would also have been interesting to see if the presence of Whiteley would have made a difference after the Smith red card. An unexpected obstacle like that is always hard to overcome, but the Springboks captain is such an efficient and talented leader that you just think he would have said the right words to keep the Crusaders at bay.
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