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Play the All Blacks at noon

The Lions are 80 minutes away from providing a much-needed boost to the overall confidence of South African rugby and, more specifically, to the Springbok chances of doing well in the forthcoming Castle Lager Rugby Championship.

It has been seven years since a South African name has been inscribed on the Super Rugby trophy, and the Lions have the best chance, since the Bulls beat the Stormers in the 2010 Orlando Stadium decider, of becoming the champions of the southern hemisphere.

After the lows that the Boks experienced in 2016, the South African game does appear to be starting to breathe again and there has been measurable progress in certain areas. A Lions win on Saturday will give it substance and they do have an excellent chance because there is good reason why history is so heavily weighted against the Crusaders in the competition decider.

When it comes to playing knock-out games at altitude, the Crusaders are a non-starter. They have lost on the Highveld in play-off games against the Bulls a couple of times, and last year they were thrashed by the Lions in the Johannesburg quarterfinal. The Chiefs were smashed by the Bulls in the 2009 final at Loftus. In fact, the only place in South Africa that overseas teams win play-off games is at sea level, Newlands.

The Lions were still trailing by 19 points when I first thought there was a possibility they might win their semifinal. It was when commentator Joel Stransky mentioned that the Hurricanes looked tired and were trying to slow the game down. It was a long way back for the Lions, but we had seen this movie before.

Were the Lions being clever in offering the Hurricanes the outside gap early in the semifinal? I doubt they’d gamble like that, but it did appear to seduce the Hurricanes into becoming even more frenetic than they might otherwise have been. It was a game where they were supposed to run the Lions off their feet, but they ended up running themselves off their feet.

People living in Johannesburg probably think the whole altitude factor is overdone. Back in 1993 I wrote a newspaper article quoting an unnamed Natal player who blamed a late match fade on the Highveld on the thin air and the fact that he and his teammates were “blowing bubbles”.

The article earned a rebuke from the captain of the team, Wahl Bartmann, who said he had never experienced what his teammates were talking about. But of course he hadn’t, because he was living in Johannesburg at the time and commuted to Durban for practices and matches.

There is one thing about the altitude debate though that needs figuring out – if you note how strongly the All Blacks have tended to finish Highveld games in recent years it is obvious that the altitude doesn’t worry them, or that they do something to circumvent it. The New Zealand franchises tend to be better at altitude in the regular season than they are in the knock-out phase.

The most obvious difference between a knock-out game and an All Black test match or regular season Super Rugby match is that the former is not scheduled, and therefore can’t be planned for. So that may have a big part to play in it.

As an aside though, it would be interesting to do a study on what time of day the matches are played. A few years ago a Sharks coach told me he was confident ahead of a Loftus clash against the Bulls because the game was being played at night. He contended that the lungs burned more on a dry afternoon under the sun than in the cool of the evening. It makes sense.

And with all the international matches on South African soil scheduled for evening, it might explain a small part of why the All Blacks haven’t ended up blowing bubbles like the Hurricanes did at the weekend. Which begs the tongue-in-cheek question, the next time the All Blacks come to Johannesburg, would it not be an idea to schedule the game for the afternoon. Or better still, make it a high noon shoot-out.

Saturday’s final is scheduled for 4pm, rather than the 2:30pm kick-off of the semi. It could just make a small difference that will be welcomed by the Crusaders.

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