Crusaders triumph a rare common sense outcome

1:17 AM BST


The right team, the best team, won the Super Rugby title.

Sanity prevailed over organisational stupidity when a team that hailed from the toughest of conferences and faced with the most demanding of travel schedules triumphed over an opponent granted an enormous leg-up due to a lopsided tournament structure. However, the Crusaders’ triumph at Ellis Park was one of the few things that did go right in a competition that has lost its way and is in dire need of a dramatic shakeup.

The competition in its 18-team, four-conference structure has been blatantly biased towards the South African teams. The Lions took advantage of an easy draw in which they didn’t have to play any New Zealand teams in the conference stage to finish on top of the ladder, and so enjoy the luxury of hosting a quarterfinal, semifinal and final. In Super Rugby, home finals provide teams with an enormous advantage — due to the travel involved; in Johannesburg, you must also add in the altitude factor.

The Crusaders celebrate with the Super Rugby trophy Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

While the Lions had a breezy ride to the finals, the Crusaders had to play six New Zealand derbies in the conference stage — including fellow finalists the Highlanders and Hurricanes twice. Their finals trek then was a minefield – playing the Highlanders and the Chiefs — while the Lions relished a cruise-control trip along a vacant highway. And then in the week leading into the final, the Crusaders had to travel halfway around the world with several forwards struggling with leg injuries. A day on aeroplanes and team buses is not the magical cure for injury niggles.

Former Crusaders and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said last week that the New Zealand team’s eighth title — were they to achieve it on the veldt — would be their greatest Super Rugby triumph. He was right. They were heading into a cauldron. They were up against a formidable team who were buoyant after rebounding against the Hurricanes in the semifinals. Everything favoured the Lions, who’d been happily sitting at home for weeks on end capturing tired prey.

The Crusaders made certain they nullified all that early on in the final, which revolved around the big moments. And a team which probably doesn’t look as formidable on paper as some Crusaders line-ups of the past won them all, as explained by John Goliath, my ESPN colleague in South Africa: they won the crucial lineouts, in particular several against the throw when the Lions looked threatening; their defence, easily the best in the competition, overall held up; and, as usual, they took every chance — seizing on opposition errors, enabling them to go to a 12-0 lead after 11 minutes; it was all trademark Crusaders.

The red card given to Kwagga Smith just before halftime was crucial, but referee Jaco Peyper made the right call after the Lions flanker had barged into David Havili while the Crusaders fullback was attempting to take the high ball. Lions coach Johan Ackermann can bleat as long as he likes, but Havili flipped and landed heavily and players know full well the dangers if they make any contact with an opponent who is in the air attempting to catch the ball.

Crusaders fullback David Havili collides with Lions flank Kwagga Smith during their Super Rugby final at Ellis Park. Gianluigi Guercia/Getty Images

The Lions, clearly motivated by that incident, played better after Smith had left the field. From then on, the Lions showed they were worthy of a final berth with a spirited comeback and two second-half tries but the Crusaders were always in control.

And with the victory came the highlight of the season when the Crusaders coach, Scott Robertson, celebrated the most memorable of starts to a representative coaching career by performing impressive breakdancing moves on the field. Surrounded by his players, he twisted, flung and spun. This is new-age rugby coaching and its clearly working in Christchurch. The footage is bound to be a YouTube hit.

The Crusaders are renowned for being dour personalities, but Robertson comes from left field and his adventurous leadership has revitalised a franchise that finished just short of the mark under his predecessor, Todd Blackadder. Robertson has brought joy back to a city that has suffered overwhelming trauma in recent years, and his effort this season must go down as one of the best in the 22 years of Super Rugby.

As for the Super Rugby season in general, this was sadly one of the most underwhelming: The Australian contingent were not competitive and South Africa only boasted one reasonable team; New Zealand crowds even dropped off because of the distinct lack of international edge.

All the finals series did was emphasise that a competition shake-up is desperately needed.

What to do?


Get rid of the conferences and make it a Super 15 competition — with 14 rounds in which every team plays each other once. Then the best four teams go through to the playoffs. Two semifinals. One final. Excellence is rewarded. Until Super Rugby goes back to being fair and equitable, it will remain a flawed competition.

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