Respect earned, Lions now face ultimate test

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The Lions are the beneficiaries of the easiest of Super Rugby draws. They finished top of the competition, primarily because of a weak conference. But some credit is due. The Lions’ semifinal comeback against the Hurricanes was one of the best in recent times, showing they are a team with rare ability, and this fightback could easily be the impetus for them winning their first Super Rugby title in Johannesburg next weekend.

Just before halftime, the Hurricanes led 22-3. It looked all over. The Hurricanes’ decision to play fast, expansive, risky and often outlandish football was working. They clearly believed they could expose the Lions on their flanks, prompting numerous dangerous cut-out passes and an attempt to expose them near either sideline. They also took advantage of Lions errors, enabling them to score two tries in the first ten minutes and a third at the 30th minute mark.

There were some Lions making an impact — particularly lock Franco Mostert, who kept stealing Hurricanes lineout throws — but most appeared stunned by the all-out Hurricanes attack.

Then it all went awry. Several refereeing decisions went the Lions’ way, and the hosts regained their composure to level the scores at 22-all by the 53rd minute before then bounding away. A dubious sinbinning of Beauden Barrett was seized upon by the Lions, who scored two tries while the Hurricanes and All Blacks No. 10 was off the field. The Hurricanes, getting more irritated by decisions from the South African referee Jaco Peyper and his assistants, lost their bearings.

As impressive an effort came from the Crusaders to defeat the Chiefs in Christchurch. For the second week in a row, the Crusaders showed they are the masters of intense defence. They strangled the Highlanders out of the quarterfinals by giving them absolutely no room to move and the visitors finished pointless, anf then on saturday they tackled the Chiefs out of the game. The match statistics are telling. The Crusaders won despite only 33 percent possession and 30 percent territory. They made 186 tackles to the Chiefs’ 66.

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

And once again they relied on the long-time Crusaders trait of preying on the slightest of opposition errors. Crusaders teams have always been the masters of pickpocket rugby — lurking and pouncing. Now they have to show that they can do it on the other side of the world. The Crusaders will fancy their chances, especially in keeping opposition points to a minimum, as the Lions are, compared with the Highlanders and Chiefs, a more predictable attacking unit but still do know how to score tries.

At least there is a chance of a reasonable crowd for the Super Rugby final, as Lions supporters, who for so long were following the competition’s weakest link, are bound to emerge from the shadows next weekend due to their considerable chance of at last winning the title for the first time.

If the final had been played in Christchurch, the crowd number may have been an embarrassment.

Seta Tamanivalu scores a try during the Crusaders’ win over the Chiefs MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

The biggest surprise of the weekend was how the crowd stayed away from the Crusaders-Chiefs semi. In spite of the game dominated by notable All Blacks, revolving around one of New Zealand rugby’s more intense provincial battles and with entertaining football guaranteed when you have Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie, Sam Cane, James Lowe, Matt Todd, Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Israel Dagg and Seta Tamanivalu involved, the crowd still stayed away. There were plenty of empty spaces in the grandstands. It was more the audience you would expect at a club final rather than a Super Rugby semi.

If Super Rugby no longer intrigues one of world rugby’s most intense rugby cities, then you know there is something seriously wrong with the competition. Maybe it’s a hangover from the British & Irish Lions tour, or that the punters have had enough of a bewildering competition that has too many teams and a flawed conference system.

But the considerable drop in attendances this season — including at finals time — is a blunt warning to SANZAAR that they must get this competition right.

Maybe that’s why Wallabies players had their mouths taped up during training last week. Were they mimicking their employers, who have gone eerily silent in recent months over which Australian team disappears from the Super Rugby next year, to bring it back to a more manageable Super 15 format?

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