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Good decision-making won the day

Murray Mexted, in his inimitable way, talked often about the importance of good decision-making in rugby.

He would preach it in his TV commentaries, which I always enjoyed either as a viewer or as a colleague, and he would preach it long and hard to his students at his IRANZ International Rugby Academy.

Especially when you get to the top level, when the players are so good, so skilled, so athletic, so powerful, it’s often the decisions they make in the heat of the moment that can make the difference between their team winning and losing.

The Crusaders, in winning their first Super Rugby title in nine years, their eighth overall, just the second by any team playing outside their own country and the first by any team having to cross the Indian Ocean, demonstrated a degree of decision-making that was crucial to them winning against the odds and against an outstanding opponent playing in front of their crowd in their conditions.

Of course those odds were evened up, maybe reversed to a degree by the biggest decision of the game, one made by the referee. It certainly left a shadow over the outcome and we can deal with that later.

But the Crusaders made good decisions before the match, and better decisions during the game, some of them based on their own experience, some gleaned from the mistakes made by the Hurricanes in their failure to capitalise on an equally good start the previous week.

The Crusaders got to Joburg as early as possible, as opposed to last year when they blew in late in the week and got snotted in the quarterfinal. This time they got their preparation right.

The mindset was crucial. If players were tired, not sleeping because of the jetlag or weary from their knock out games, they were not allowed to talk about it to teammates. It all had to be positive.

They were made to feel excited about playing in front of a 62 000 crowd made up almost entirely of Lions supporters, not worried or nervous.

They needed to start well, and after absorbing early pressure, opted to try and build as good a lead as possible.

They took points whenever they were on offer, unfashionable as it is these days to take the three when a lineout drive might produce five or seven.

They went to their bench early to try and keep the energy levels at optimum as deep into the match as possible, before the travel fatigue and lack of oxygen started to bite and the Lions made their inevitable, brave last quarter bid to save the Alamo.

They anticipated the Lions would spurn the bird in the hand for a possible two in the bush, and had clearly put great thought into the accuracy and the timing of their lineout drive defence.

And extraordinarily, they also threw out the modern template and started challenging the Lions throw deep in their own red zone, when common wisdom is not to compete and throw all hands to the barricades.

Sam Whitelock learned a lot from the greatest of them all, Victor Matfield, and has assumed the mantle of the worlds pre-eminent lineout strategist. Why? Because like Big Vic, he makes good decisions.

They put early pressure on the Lions backs through the speed and accuracy of their rush defence. Given the level of debate over the offside line in recent times, they had to be disciplined, but were still able to put pressure on Elton Jantjies in particular, and errors ensued.

The Lions, through that first half, seemed to lose confidence in their backs and went to their big men to try and break down the doors.

At times they were able, and they threatened to break through, but the tactic also played into the hands of the Crusaders, who stood firm, knowing where the pressure would come, set themselves, made good decisions about whether or not to contest the ruck, and waited for their moment to pounce for the steal. It was from such a passage that the first try came, Seta Tamanivalu scoring completely against the run of play.

It was that defence, the organisation, the accuracy, that really won the day for them. They had to make close to 200 tackles, and certainly missed a few as any would do against such tremendous ball carriers, but they got most of the ones that mattered.

They also kicked accurately and effectively, way better than the Hurricanes had done.

In the end it was a win I genuinely believe they deserved.

There will always be that frisson of doubt though, because the Lions were cut down to 14 just before half time.

It was impossible not to feel for Kwagga Smith as he trudged down the tunnel at Ellis Park. Having made a whole-hearted contribution to his team's passage to the final, one bad decision, or perhaps more to the point a non-decision, saw him banished, taking a large chunk of his team's hopes with him.

He has no reputation for foul play, and needless to say, had no intention of endangering a fellow player. He just got himself into a bad spot and left the refereeing crew with no option under current law.

Just as they do when players are pinned in a ruck and are unable to move, but still get penalised, people will ask what was Smith supposed to do in such a split second?

The answer is it was too late. In his desperation to do something to help his team he’d raced after a high kick, his sole focus on getting there, but with Havili also racing forward the distance between the two players disappeared in a flash, too late for Smith to realise his only choices were to either bail out completely, or at least get into the air to be seen to be attempting a lawful challenge.

Later in the game, Israel Dagg was faced with a similar situation. He was a good 10-12 metres away from where the ball was going to be claimed by Courtnal Skosan when he realised he might not make it. So his decision was to avoid the risk, slow down, and tackle Skosan the second he touched the ground.

Kwagga Smith did not make that judgement call, and in the end neither bailed out nor contested. He just arrived, and at the worst time.

People will argue two things. One is that the application of the laws with regard to player safety have now gotten out of perspective. Players are being sent from the field for non-malicious acts, matches decided by play deemed dangerous because of possible consequence. The player claiming the ball is, in a way, initiating the danger, but has all the rights, like a football goalkeeper.

Earlier this year the All Blacks lost a test match in Wellington when Charlie Faumuina was deemed to have tackled a player in the air….the fact that a split second before the tackle was made the ball carrier had jumped into the air was simply not given consideration. It was a correct decision, and yet harsh, uncharitable and the entire series swung on it.

The other thing people will argue is that an entire team must suffer for one individuals error in judgement and the fans are denied what they all really want, a contest of 15 against 15.

Perhaps cases like Kwagga Smith, and that of Highlander Jason Emery who was sent off last year for a similar challenge on an airborne Willie le Roux, need to be placed in a new category?

Basketball has two kinds of foul, the regular one and the flagrant one, which carries a greater penalty, and maybe rugby could consider adapting a two tier sanction.

Maybe in the case of an incident where there is such danger, but no obvious intent, a player should still be red carded, but be able to be replaced after ten minutes. Only acts of deliberate foul play or blatant professional fouls resulting in a double yellow should result in a team being permanently reduced in strength.

I’m not saying it would necessarily provide the answer, it may complicate things even further. I’m just lobbing it out there as a discussion point.

It’s impossible to say what might have happened had Smith only been yellow carded. The Crusaders were in good shape at the time and had already taken some of the sting out of the crowd. I’d add that flanker is perhaps the least difficult position to cover in a 14 v 15 situation, hence the decision by the All Blacks to take Jerome Kaino off when Sonny Bill Williams was red carded in Wellington.

We’ll never know, the result is in the book. The Lions paid for a (fortunately) victimless crime, but do the Crusaders deserve to have their achievement sullied?

The Lions need not be downcast.

They have restored honour to their house. They have shown the way forward for the rest of South African Rugby, and they earned the right to stage a final in front of a record crowd on a fantastic occasion. They are a great side.

So ends the 22nd edition of Super Rugby.

It is a competition with deep flaws, with responsibility for those flaws spread across the member nations who continue to put their own interests ahead of the best interests of the competition. It is, as a consequence, fraught with inconsistency, uneven scheduling, erratic refereeing and unfair advantages to teams that have not earned them.

And yet the best teams always seem to get to the final and it can still produce rugby of the highest order. It is also essential to the financial wellbeing of the game and the progression of our national teams.

It’s far from perfect, but I’d still rather watch a game like we saw at the weekend than anything else below test level anywhere in the world.

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