Contrasting styles, stories offer sour Super season a sweet finish

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After all the beatings Super Rugby has taken this season, it is indeed a welcome outcome that the competition has again got the finale it deserves.

The Lions will host the Crusaders in a battle of several exciting contrasts and storylines after equally varied, but similarly impressive, victories in their semifinals on Saturday. The No.1 and 2 seeds after the regular season, the Lions and Crusaders have ridden home advantage into the decider to be played at Johannesburg’s grand old Ellis Park in six days’ time.

Kieran Read (L), Israel Dagg MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

History will tell you that puts favouritism firmly in the Lions’ corner given only one previous Super Rugby final has been won by an away team playing in another country. But those old enough to remember the 2000 decider in Canberra will quickly point to the team that defeated the Brumbies on that occasion, the Crusaders, and the fashion in which they did so.

The fact that it resembled the seven-time champions’ victory over the Hurricanes in no small way, shape or form, will give fans of Scott Robertson’s side huge hope the wait for title No.8 might finally be about to end.

In Christchurch on Saturday, the Crusaders absorbed wave after wave of crafty Chiefs attack, using a mixture of determined defence and a refusal to commit at the ruck, to negate the likes of Aaron Cruden, Damien McKenzie and James Lowe. Then, when the opportunities fell their way, the Crusaders swallowed them in an instant.

Had the Television Match Official not overturned Tim Nanai-Williams’ try midway through the first half, the script may well have been different but to keep one of the most dangerous sides of the competition tryless for 78 minute reflects the Crusaders’ outstanding defensive commitment.

Scott Robertson Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Robertson’s side enjoyed just a third of both the possession and territory share, yet still scored four tries to one. The Crusaders produced a masterclass in defensive pressure, and they’ll likely require something similar in Johannesburg this weekend.

That the 2017 version of the Crusaders have resembled the franchise’s glory years of the 2000s won’t be lost on the Lions. But if the South Africans are looking for a title-winning comparison themselves then the three-time champion Bulls are a good place to start. The Pretoria franchise were almost unstoppable when they built momentum across a four-year period [2007-2010] that netted three titles; a team that used a huge pack to roll through the forwards and then let their backs go to work in the space that created.

That was essentially how the Lions defeated the Hurricanes at the weekend. After a horror start that saw them fall to a 22-3 deficit, the South Africans quickly began to roll through the middle of the Hurricanes’ defence with Franco Mostert, Malcolm Marx and Ruan Ackermann, in particular, making big inroads. They may not be Pierre Spies, Victor Matfield nor Bakkies Botha but the power game the Lions have in their arsenal does indeed resemble the title-winning Bulls.

While the styles in which the Lions and Crusaders like to play are vastly different, they do share a vital cog that comes in the form of their coaches. Both Johan Ackermann and Scott Robertson have done an outstanding job in taking their teams to the Super Rugby final, albeit it in vastly different circumstances.

Current Lions coach Johan Ackermann featured as a player for the Cats in their 2000 semifinal against the Brumbies. Getty Images

For Ackermann, it has been a four-year journey, one of steady progress and the rebuilding of a franchise that hit rock bottom when they were banished to Super Rugby obscurity in 2013. It would be a fitting send-off should he lift the trophy this weekend before heading off for Gloucester.

Robertson, on the other hand, has exceeded all expectations in just his first year in charge. The Crusaders were a perennial threat under former coach Todd Blackadder but they could never quite seal an elusive eighth title. Robertson has restored the franchise’s ruthless streak and shown them how to again win the close ones. The Crusaders won five games by seven points or less during the regular season, three of which came in the first three rounds, and that ability to navigate the tense final minutes could be crucial in Johannesburg this weekend.

Whatever the outcome on Saturday, it will be a storyline that Super Rugby desperately needs. For it has been a season where the once-mighty competition has suffered greatly and one from which it may take some time to recover.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/20205122/final-contrasting-styles-stories-offer-sour-super-rugby-season-sweet-finish
Contrasting styles, stories offer sour Super season a sweet finish
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