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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

People’s team has shown the way

Defeat to a good team in a final overshadowed by an unfortunate red carding incident should not have prevented the Emirates Lions from ending the Vodacom Super Rugby season feeling that they had done both themselves and South African rugby proud.

The Crusaders did look, in the first half of a match played in an amazing atmosphere in front of 62 000 fans, like they had learned from the Hurricanes’ mistakes of a week before.

They slowed the game down just enough and chose their moments to play the big points, which they did well, to suggest they weren’t going to run themselves off their own feet to the extent that their countrymen did seven days earlier.

But the way the Lions came back in the second half, particularly the last quarter, left enough question marks.

What would have happened had Kwagga Smith not been red carded for running into Crusaders fullback David Havilli whilst he was airborne? We will never know, and that is the problem with a modern game that just sees too many matches impacted by cards and by the challenge to the sport’s integrity that comes with seeing 15 men play 14 instead of 15 against 15.

Referee Jaco Peyper’s decision to red card Smith was the right one and he was just blowing to the letter of the law. Peyper produced a great performance in the final and he had no choice but to banish Smith. But the commentators were right in suggesting that you could almost hear and sense the reluctance of the referee. He knew the game would be over as a contest once Smith left the field.

It damn nearly wasn’t, and the fact that fans at the stadium and watching on television still got some sense of a great occasion and spectacle was entirely down to the Lions’ never say die attitude and refusal to lie down.

They talk about a brotherhood and a no fear attitude at the Johannesburg union and that was there in plentiful supply late in the game as they threw everything into their last ditch attempt to achieve their goal of becoming Super Rugby champions, even though the odds were stacked against them.

Full marks to the Crusaders, who did look at the end like they were succumbing to the altitude bogey, for the odds were stacked against them before the game. Coming to Africa to play a final at altitude and win it is no mean achievement.

Considering the competitiveness of the New Zealand conference and the sheer efficiency they showed in winning 14 games on the trot in the league phase of competition, you could probably say the right team won the trophy. The Crusaders are a class act.

But so are the Lions. It doesn’t matter who you are playing against, to go from early March to August without losing a solitary game is a special achievement. That there was the odd narrow scrape mixed in with those results, such as their late escape against the Sharks in the quarterfinal, only makes their record more significant. They are clearly a team that has established the habit of winning.

They also do it with such flair and verve, which perhaps goes a long way to answering a small debate in the SuperSport studio before kick-off. The subject was the massive support the Lions enjoyed throughout the country.

It is hard to recall the Bulls, Sharks or Stormers enjoying quite the same level of support from South Africans as a whole when they have contested play-off games against overseas teams in the past, and Victor Matfield was probably right when he suggested that if the Stormers were in the final, they might have enjoyed limited support from Pretoria. The converse would also have held true.

A big part of why the Lions have become so popular is their rags to riches story. South Africans have not forgotten how low they were a few years back, how they were omitted from the competition in 2013, how they went an entire season without a victory a couple of years before that.

But a big endearing feature is the game that they played under coach Johan Ackermann, who in continuing with the platform laid during the time he was assistant to John Mitchell did his union and franchise a great service, while benefiting South African rugby too.

Heyneke Meyer, when he was coaching the Bulls to Super Rugby success, was right when he said that the perception that his team was boring to watch was misguided. Meyer used to claim that when the Bulls perfected their game they were quite spectacular, and those who remember them thumping the Stormers 75-14 in 2005 and posting more than 90 against the Reds two years later won’t argue the point.

The fact remains though that the Bulls’ playing style wasn’t as universally popular with South Africans as the Lions’ template has been. Make no mistake, the Lions do base a lot of their success on forward dominance, but then isn’t that what rugby is about? What they have also done though is play with a spirit of adventure that has been all too rare for a South African team.

At a time when local rugby desperately needed a shining example of the possibilities that could be unearthed with a more dynamic attacking style, the Lions provided it, and they continue to provide it. And now that the national coach has recognised the value of embracing what Ackermann has done successfully at Emirates Airlines Park, the country is benefiting too.

The Crusaders at the weekend went where no team has gone before by going to altitude to win a Super Rugby trophy, and they are deserved champions. South African rugby as a whole can learn from what the Lions would have learned in the first half of both the final and the semifinal – make mistakes against Kiwi teams and you get punished. They exploit small margins in such a way that those small margins of error become big chasms on the scoreboard.

But the Lions’ progress need not be halted now. They enjoyed another outstanding season, probably even better than the year before, and if they continue to improve they can reach their goal. The path they have chosen is undeniably the right one and it is right that the rest of the South African teams follow their lead.


Lions 17 Crusaders 25


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