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A final for the ages





The turnaround of the Lions from Super Rugby easy-beats, and a team that was out of the competition just four years ago, to being just one step away from champions, is quite remarkable.

Their win over the Hurricanes in the semi means they have a win against all five New Zealand teams since the beginning of last year, which is a pretty good gauge, and goes some way to countering the argument that they received the benefits of top seeding through an easier schedule this year.

They have embraced a positive game plan, a plan that revolves around dynamic ball carrying, offloading, good support play and excellent angles of attack, all of which came to the fore in their astonishing comeback win over the Hurricanes.

Things had started so well for the ‘Canes, and, even if there was an opportunist touch to some of their early scoring, they were able to build a very good lead.

To me the turning point came at 22-3 when Dane Coles failed to take a pass with the line open before him. If he scored then it could have been 29-3 and it would have altered the course of the final moments in that first half.

Instead the Lions were able to come back and score, as great teams so often do, on either side of the break, and completely change the momentum of the game.

As much as the Lions were irrepressible once they got their game into gear, the Hurricanes were guilty of flawed tactics..

It is remarkable to think that a team laced with such attacking talent should ask the Lions to make just 66 tackles in the game, of which 22 were broken. And yet rather than exploit that by keeping possession and working it through their attack, they opted to play territory, something they didn’t do very well.

The Barrett brothers alone sent 15 un-contestable kicks downfield, many of which were effectively returned. It’s something we’re not used to seeing from New Zealand teams, and it really cost them. It’s hard to understand why, but it could have been because of an early onset of fatigue.

After that Coles miss, the momentum of the game shifted dramatically, with the Lions loose forwards and Franco Mostert carrying superbly, building great pressure and ultimately a flood of points.

They ruthlessly exploited the sin-binning of Beauden Barrett, which was another flash point.

Having viewed the footage closely, I personally I think it’s the only thing the referees got really wrong in the whole game.

After making a desperate tackle Barrett had made a genuine effort to pull himself clear of the ruck. That the ball came out with him was down to some smart thinking by Ruan Combrinck, who placed the ball between Barrett's legs.

I can sort of understand Jaco Peyper's conviction that he had to act because it was an attacking situation and at first glance it looked an open and shut case. It’s highly doubtful that sending it up to Marius Jonker would have made any difference, but the bottom line is when you look at what happened in close detail it was an extremely harsh decision. There was no intent to play the ball by Barrett, and he was doing all that was required to abide by the law.

The floodgates re-opened after that, although it has to be said that the Lions already had momentum and the Hurricanes were bound to fade in the last quarter so it would be a stretch to say it was a game-deciding moment.

Bottom line, the Lions were the better team and there were some magnificent aspects to their play, particularly the tireless work of the three loosies and Franco Mostert, who has been one of the outstanding figures in this years Super Rugby, and is surely going to be one of the first names penned in for the Rugby Championship opener against the Pumas.

This Lions team has restored pride to one of the great houses of world rugby.

When South Africa returned to the international fold, the Transvaal team were the power-base of the game, winning the inaugural Super 10 competition and providing the spine of the Springbok team that went on to win the World Cup in such glorious style.

Obviously things went a bit sour after that, with the demise of their on-field fortunes seeming to mirror the falling apart of the Louis Luyt House of Cards.

It’s good to see them back. John Mitchell may have ruffled feathers during his stay, but he put down a solid foundation for Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin to build on, and you could say in all honesty that success could not come to two more deserving, amicable fellows.

Ackermann has been prepared to look well beyond his own borders to improve his team, and that the Lions have hardly blinked since the loss of their skipper Warren Whiteley to injury says volumes for their depth, resolve, and their team culture.

Now there is “only” the Crusaders to stand in between them and the honour of being only the second South African organisation to win Super Rugby.

And the odds favour of the Lions. Only one team, the Crusaders in 2000, has ever won a Super Rugby final outside their own country.

The Lions are not only coming off a great win, they have the advantage of training in their own conditions and sleeping in their own beds, while the Crusaders have been transported through multiple time zones, nursing the bruises of two torrid playoff games in trying conditions.

I said it last year when the Lions had to travel to Wellington, so I have no qualms about saying it again. It would be better for the game and a much more even playing field if there was a week off between the semi and the final, but that is not likely to happen. Swings and roundabouts, again.

The Crusaders will put up a good fight, no doubt, and are unlikely to make the same tactical mistakes the Hurricanes made.

They have plenty of All Blacks, but perhaps because so many of their players were involved in the British and Irish Lions series, they have not yet regained their form of earlier in the year.

Still they are a proud team, one with a core of experience and a lot of emerging talent, all coming together under one of the more progressive emerging coaches in New Zealand, albeit one who is still very inexperienced at this level.

They have made it through the playoffs on forward domination in one game, and defence in the other, but they will need more than that when they run out into the rarified air and sunshine of what we all hope will be a packed Ellis Park. They will enjoy playing in front of a big crowd, as even some of their most loyal fans have seemingly had enough of turning up to watch them in the temporary and woefully inadequate stadium built after the earthquakes, one that was supposed to have been replaced by now.

It should be a final for the ages, and it will be great to see it at one of the world's great rugby stadiums.

I think we can all celebrate that, regardless of who wins.


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