]The breakdown battle, as in most big rugby matches, will have a massive influence on who walks away with the Super Rugby trophy from Ellis Park on Saturday night.
But what makes the battle between the Lions and the Crusaders even more intriguing is that the teams have used different methods to conquer the opposition in this department of the game.
The Lions, for instance, play with two players who play towards the ball and they make a nuisance of themselves by trying to flood the breakdown and deny the opposition quick ball.
The Crusaders, on the other hand, especially over the last two weeks in wet conditions at home, haven’t really deployed players to the breakdown. They have decided to rather fan out and win the collisions by being dominant in the tackle.
Both options have worked for the two teams, but the Crusaders may change their approach slightly for Ellis Park. The pitch is going to be fast and the weather is going to be really good, so that option of allowing the opposition to recycle the ball without any fuss may be suicide, especially against a Lions team who thrive on momentum and quick ball.
Matt Todd was a thorn in the side of the Highlanders this weekend. Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
“We have got to be smart. When it’s on, we have got to attack the breakdown, and when it’s not, we have got to make sure we have bodies on their feet,” Crusaders opensider Matt Todd said ahead of the final.
“But we can’t allow them just to get a roll on and get quick ball at every ruck. We have got to disrupt their flow somehow. Controlling possession and territory is going to be a massive part of the game. If we have to defend all game, it’s going to be tough.”
Defending for most of the game at altitude is also suicide, because teams tend to tire a lot quicker when they make a lot of tackles.
But the Crusaders are a quality offensive side and they would be licking their lips to play at Ellis Park after the horrendous weather they have experienced in New Zealand over the last month. But they know they will have to protect their ball when on attack against Lions’ poachers Kwagga Smith and Jaco Kriel.
Smith, in particular, has been in top form this season since signing on to play fulltime Super Rugby after playing a key role for the South African Sevens side over the last couple of years.
“We know how good they are over the ball, so obviously we have got to make sure that the ball carrier does the job, and the support players must make sure we get there quickly. They are dangerous on the ball and that is a big part of their game,” Todd said.
“He [Kwagga] has been outstanding, obviously very quick and with that Sevens background he has a great engine to get around the park. His support play is really good and he is good at the breakdown. He is a dangerous player and one we certainly have to keep an eye on this weekend.”
Smith also warned about the danger the experienced Todd possesses at the breakdown. The All Black has also had a very good season.
Kwagga Smith Mark Nolan/Getty Images
For Smith, though, a good performance against one of the best opensiders in the competition could lead to a Springbok call-up, as coach Allister Coetzee will announce his Rugby Championship squad after the Super Rugby final.
His transition for Sevens rugby was seemingly easy. Even though Smith isn’t the biggest player on the park, he is very strong and is dominant at the breakdown. Now he has a chance to stake a claim to play Test rugby.
“I will always work hard to reach my goals and becoming a Springbok is the ultimate goal. I will do my best to get there and be the best player that I can be in this position,” Smith said this week.
“For me it was all about hard work when I got back into the 15-man game. The first few games I sat on the bench and I eventually got my start after Jaco got injured.
“I must say the more minutes you play, the better you get. You get used to the position. But I’m not done with the Sevens, as I’m going back there in December to play the first four tournaments again. But in my first Super Rugby season in 2015 I played three matches and it was a great taste.”
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