There’s no denying that the Lions face a monumental challenge of taking on the Crusaders in Christchurch in a bid to claim the 2018 Super Rugby title. However, the stacked-odds have worked in the Lions’ favour in the past, and perhaps a bit of a complacency with the New Zealand powerhouse franchise isn’t the worst thing for the Lions to contend with.
The Joburg side have been in two previous finals after all, losing out to the Hurricanes 20-3 away from home in 2016, before faltering to the Crusaders 25-17 at Ellis Park last season. This close-but-no-cigar pattern that’s emerging is something that Swys de Bruin’s men can’t afford to let continue, and something that they addressed from the beginning of the season, delivering a more focused and rounded campaign as opposed to last year, despite some hiccups along the way.
They shrugged off a loss of form at the right time to defeat Gauteng neighbours, the Bulls, in their last regular-season match and then proceeded to eliminate the powerful Jaguares and resurgent Waratahs with impressive displays in Johannesburg – and these notable performances could very-well be the key to them raising the trophy. The Lions have played their best rugby this season when they’re 10 to 15 points up, having gained the confidence to move the ball wide, Elton Jantjies utilising his attacking-kicking game, and the team’s big-names, such as Malcolm Marx, Kwagga Smith, and Aphiwe Dyanti, taking chances.
Even when the Lions were at a deficit, playing with confidence and enthusiasm worked in their favour, as opposed to the conservative approach; and this ambitious attacking direction (coupled with a cohesive defence) has been their game-changing attitude in most second-half comebacks. With nothing really to lose come Saturday, the Lions need to apply this outlook from the get-go in Christchurch.
Of course, playing on the south island of New Zealand is different to the home comforts of Ellis Park, but this Lions side is showing a determination greater than in previous seasons, even under the then-watchful eye of Johan Ackermann.
That said, one could say the same about the Crusaders this season – they’ve been ruthless, having won 14 games in a row and a deep sense of familiarity with knockout, do-or-die rugby moments, but they’re not unbeatable – no one is.
The Crusaders will be lucky to be fielding 19 players who featured in last year’s final in this weekend’s matchday 23, and coach Scott Robertson made just one injury-enforced change to his starting line-up for the big occasion. Heiden Bedwell-Curtis was handed the No 6 jersey in place of Jordan Taufua, who broke his arm last weekend’s home semi-final victory over the Hurricanes. Reserve hooker, Seb Siataga, who also fractured his arm in the previous match, has been replaced by Sam Anderson-Heather.
On the other side of things, De Bruin has made two changes to his starting team for the final. Cyle Brink, who missed last week’s semi-final triumph over the Waratahs due to an arm injury, returns at flank while Lourens Erasmus moves to the bench.
Springbok flyer Courtnall Skosan will start on the left wing and fellow Bok Aphiwe Dyantyi, who left the field against the Waratahs with a hamstring injury, will now play off the bench.
Of course, a big focus will be on that of the battle between opposing flyhalves, Elton Jantjies and Richie Mo’unga. The Lions playmaker is sitting on 165 from 18 games, while Mo’unga holds 133 points from his 11 appearances. Both are quite similar in their playstyle, but Jantjies tends to rely on his outside backs more while Mo’unga attacks and distributes in the closer channels; however, it will be an entertaining element to see how these two stack up come Saturday.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody. Replacements: 16 Sam Anderson-Heather, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen. Replacements: 16 Corné Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 23 Howard Mnisi.