Lions are ready for final roar
Coach may get great farewell gift from team
The Lions’ Super Rugby story looks set to reach a climax in fairy-tale fashion. Eighty minutes — as well as a crack Crusaders outfit — are all that stand between the Lions and their first Super Rugby title.
Come Saturday evening at Ellis Park, rugby fans from around the country may be celebrating a first SA championship win in the tournament since 2010 as well as a fitting end to coach Johan Ackermann’s five-year tenure. The former Springbok lock will leave the Lions and join English club Gloucester in the coming weeks.
In the wake of the Lions’ thrilling comeback victory against the Hurricanes, Ackermann reminded all and sundry that his team had yet to realise its objective, namely winning the Super Rugby title. The Lions impressed over the course of the 2016 tournament, but fell short in the final when they met a more polished Hurricanes side on a wet night in Wellington.
The Lions certainly got their revenge in the recent semifinal at Ellis Park. The hosts out-muscled and outlasted the 2016 champions to win 44-29 and advance to their first home Super Rugby final.
In a poor first-half performance the Lions conceded 22 points. And yet, as Ackermann and captain Jaco Kriel revealed after that game, the players’ unwavering belief in their own abilities as well as a change in tactics ensured that the Lions completed one of the great comeback victories. While tactical adjustments are expected in the lead-up to a showdown with the Crusaders, the Lions shouldn’t want for confidence or momentum.
The Crusaders head into that clash with a squad stacked with All Blacks, men who have won Rugby Championships and World Cup titles with the New Zealand national side. The Crusaders franchise itself is the most decorated in Super Rugby history, having won seven titles. That said, the men from Christchurch have not lifted the trophy since 2008. While they progressed to the final of the 2011 and 2014 tournaments, they finished on the wrong side of the result on both occasions.
The Crusaders have been one of the best sides on show in the 2017 competition.
Scott Robertson’s team won 14 of their 15 regular season games via an exciting yet pragmatic game of rugby. They smashed the Highlanders 17-0 in the quarterfinal and the Chiefs 27-13 in the semifinal.
The Crusaders would be the overwhelming favourites to win if the final were being staged in Christchurch this Saturday. With the game being played at Ellis Park, however, the Crusaders are the underdogs.
The Lions finished the regular season at the top of the overall standings and thus earned the right to home advantage in the playoffs. The upshot is that the Crusaders have been forced to travel from New Zealand to SA this week.
No team has ever won a Super Rugby final after traversing the Indian Ocean to play away from home.
A title win would cap an outstanding season for the Lions. It would also mark a fitting end to Ackermann’s tenure.
He guided the Lions through the dark days of 2013 — the Lions were relegated from Super Rugby at the end of 2012 and returned to the competition only in 2014 — and then shaped them into a team of style and substance over the subsequent four years.
No doubt the players will be looking to give their coach the best possible sendoff at Ellis Park on Saturday.