If you put all your biases aside, you have to acknowledge that Lions Super Rugby coach Johann Ackermann has come through and made the finals two years in a row; you can’t ask more of a coach than that.
You can’t take anything away from what Ackermann has done with the Lions. He’s been a fantastic servant and coach, and he’s done a great job. If South African Rugby is half-smart, it will have been putting money aside to get him back for the Springboks job at some point because he’s clearly destined to be an international coach in the future. Gloucester are a lucky side to have him for next season in the Aviva Premiership; let’s see where they go.
Meanwhile, he’ll be looking to bow out a winner with the Lions. As we know, anything can happen in a final, and as a coach any motivation or tactics you can come up with in a final is one half-percent of the requirement; it is up to the players by that stage. As a coach, you’ve got them there and masterminded everything that has gone in behind the scenes. In Johannesburg, Ackermann’s created a new era, a new environment, for the Lions who have been screaming out for decades to get back to where they were. Hat’s off to him.
Saturday’s final against the Crusaders should be an outstanding game.
The Crusaders, if they are to beat Ackermann’s Lions in Johannesburg, will base their effort around their forwards. That’s what they’ve always done. They’ll be able to match the Lions’ big, powerful pack, and the set-piece should be fine. The experienced hands – Whitelock, Read and Franks — have to lay down the platform and guide their young backline. The Crusaders showed against the Chiefs that their defence is absolutely outstanding, and we’ve seen from week to week that their attack is brilliant. Now it’s really a case of getting over to Johannesburg and playing their own game.
The Lions rode an easy draw to the semifinals before earning plenty of respect with a surging comeback win over the Hurricanes. A maiden title is now in the offing, though few challenges are tougher than an in-form Crusaders — Greg Growden writes.
Super Rugby has the finale it deserves with the contrasting styles and storylines of the Lions and Crusaders capable of delivering a decider that can finish what has been a sour season off the field in the best possible fashion on it.
Altitude will be a factor, as I’ve heard so many times this week, but the Crusaders can’t afford to make that an excuse. Years ago it was laid down and set in stone that players will never talk about altitude and make it an excuse; it is going to hurt but you push through it. The teams are fit enough now, and they’ve been to South Africa so many times, and played at altitude so often, that altitude becomes an issue only if they start thinking about it. On the Veldt, the more you highlight the issue of altitude, the more of a problem it becomes. But it’s not a problem, as players are used to it; they know the ball will travel further and the lungs will burn at some stage in the game, but they get over because there is the aerobic capacity in those players to push through it.
The final at Ellis Park can’t come soon enough in my mind because Super Rugby has dragged on so long that I’m ready to put the competition to bed and move on because we’ve seen our fans drift away. Once what is going to be a great game of rugby is played, SANZAAR needs to conduct a deep and honest review involving a big blank canvas about where this competition is heading and what everyone wants to achieve. The nature of the competition as it stands is completely flawed.
Kieran Read (L), Israel Dagg MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images
South Africa, from the way Super Rugby works, has pretty much got its own competition. We’ve also got our own competition in New Zealand. If that is to remain the case, SANZAAR should separate the countries and then play off between a number of teams from an Oceania-based competition and a South Africa-based competition before the top four from each play everyone else to get a winner.
I’m over a competition in which everyone doesn’t play everyone. It doesn’t sit right. And if cost-cutting is involved then we need to re-invent what the competition looks like. And I’m not alone if you look at the number of fans turning out for the semifinals in both Christchurch and Johannesburg — and even the week before in the quarterfinals; people have turned off Super Rugby, and how we get a winner out of a competition in which everyone doesn’t play each other and it’s all stacked on two different sides. At present, it’s a bit like two different parts of the world coming together to play a couple of games to get a final. It’s more like a series than a long competition.
There were two things, especially, in relation to the Christchurch crowd for the Crusaders’ semifinal against the Chiefs. It was really cold so you had to be a diehard supporter to go out, but I also think people also assumed they would have the Crusaders playing at home in the final and they were saving their money until then. It wasn’t to be, and that’s what happens when people pick and choose the games they are prepared to pay to go and see.
The Crusaders were the better side and their defence was outstanding against the Chiefs, who played a hell of a lot of rugby; that is the sort of defence required to win championships, as they say. The Crusaders would have come away from that feeling good about doing it, but they had to get on a plane hours later and fly to South Africa.
That’s going to be another tough ask but the Crusaders have shown many times in the past that they can surmount what seems to be insurmountable. Their professional attitude to everything is quite outstanding, and they are the one team who can go to South Africa to win the final.
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If you look at what the Hurricanes have been through, and the amount of travel, the semifinal against the Lions in Johannesburg was probably just a bridge too far for them; it didn’t help that they had to play at a crucial stage with 14 men, but Beauden Barrett’s sin-binning was probably just a nail in the coffin.
There’s been a bit of crying in New Zealand about the refereeing and how the Hurricanes were hard done by, but really the 44 points the Lions put on represented areas of the game where they were dominant — especially some of the set-piece play and the driving. They took their opportunities, they threw the ball around, and they came up with the points so you can’t cry foul now.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY