Our rugby scribe previews the third 2016 Super Rugby quarter-final clash between the Lions and the Crusaders.
This is arguably the pick of the quarter-final action. You’ve got a Lions side who are experiencing a bit of fairytale season taking on the most successful franchise in the history of the competition in front of a capacity Emirates Airline Park crowd.
The hosts will be looking to continue their miraculous run in the competition while the Crusaders will be looking to advance their claims for an unprecedented eighth Super Rugby title!
Lions v Crusaders | Saturday 23 July | Emirates Airline Park | 16:30 (CAT)
To Win (80 Mins)
Lions 17/20 | Draw 25/1 | Crusaders 9/10
Lions | Crusaders
*Handicaps to be added upon release.
While it’s not exactly a Leicester City underdog story, the Lions rise to prominence in the Super Rugby sphere has been rather astounding. The Johannesburg franchise was relegated from the tournament back in 2012 to make way for the Southern Kings.
Fast forward four years and the Lions have become a real title contender. While there were some hard times for the union during this transitional phase, the ignominious axing of former head coach Jon Mitchell ranking at the top of the list of debacles, the highs far outrank the lows.
Mitchell’s successor, Johan Ackermann, has done a fantastic job assembling this Lions side and turning a bunch of rejects into Springboks and Currie Cup champions.
Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Faf de Klerk, Warrick Tecklenburg and Courtnall Skosan were all deemed surplus to requirements by the Blue Bulls who they represented as juniors while Warren Whiteley and Ruan Combrinck represented Natal Craven week sides - Combrinck actually played alongside Sharks skipper Patrick Lambie during the 2008 edition of the schoolboy tournament - but neither became Sharks stalwarts with Whiteley only playing a handful of Currie Cup games for the union and Combrinck moving down to Cape Town to further his studies.
Another man whose career has traversed a rather uncharted road has been Lions' backline kingpin Elton Jantjies. The left footed pivot was one of the most promising talents in the country back in the early 2010’s but discipline issues and a tendency to drop his head when things weren’t going to plan saw him fall out of favour with the national selectors despite his flawless kicking display in the Lions 2011 Currie Cup final victory over the Sharks.
After an ill-fated loan deal to the Stormers during the Lions one year exile from Super Rugby, the Graaff-Reinet born Jantjies went to revive his career out in Japan with NTT Shining ARCS. He returned to South Africa a much more composed fly-half and was instrumental in the Lions winning last year’s Currie Cup.
Apologies for the long-winded introduction to this segment but it was necessary in order for me to bring up my main point about this Lions side; they are a real team. These men have endured low points and have feasted upon the spoils of victory together. They are willing to put their bodies on the line for one another and they don’t know the meaning of defeat.
These attributes will be put to the test this weekend as they are coming up against a side that knows how to win Super Rugby games better than any other franchise in the tournament.
If the Lions are to add another page to their fairytale story, they will need their pack to front up to the Crusaders’ big men. The Johannesburg-based franchises’ front row – who have been in sensational form this season – are capable of giving a vastly experienced Crusaders front three a real test scrum time, while lock Franco Mostert has been a nuisance for opposition hookers at the lineout, all season long.
The Lions backs will also have to play a role, and in particular, their halfback pairing of Janjties and de Klerk. Both men will have to ensure they find touch with their clearance kicks as the last thing you want to do when playing against the Crusaders is to kick the ball straight down Israel Dagg’s throat.
The Lions' centre pairing of van Rensburg and Mapoe will also need to try and target the Crusaders ten and twelve channels when on attack as they are unlikely to get through the defensively sound Ryan Crotty who will operate at thirteen for the Crusaders.
This may sound rather absurd considering the Crusaders loose trio features the current All Black skipper and the world’s undisputed best number eight, but I think the Lions may be able to win the battle of the loose forwards. Jaco Kriel has been a class above this season while Warren Tecklenburg has probably been the Lions most consistent performer. Warren Whiteley has also made a miraculous return to the starting XV –
The Crusaders have shown that there is life after Carter and McCaw with a solid 2016 campaign. The men from Canterbury may have only finished fourth on the New Zealand conference standings but they still played some brilliant rugby.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the season for the Canterbarians must be the progress of young fly-half Richie Mo’unga. The former New Zealand under-20 has seamlessly transitioned into the massive void left by All Black legend, Dan Carter.
The Christchurch-born Mo’unga currently boasts a 70.1% goal kicking success rate but it’s his ability to take the ball to the gain line that’s really impressed me.
Outside of Mo’unga, All Black Ryan Crotty offers a solid presence at thirteen while the electric David Havili will look to attack Elton Jantjies’ channel.
The Crusaders will be missing one of their most potent attacking weapons, however, with winger Nemani Nadolo out with a hamstring injury. The 'Flying Fijian's' spot on the left wing will be taken by fellow Fijian, Jone Macilai.
The 'Saders will welcome back scrumhalf Andy Ellis, though, which is a massive coup considering how brilliant Ellis' box kicking is. The nuggety nine has overcome a calf injury that saw him ruled out of last week’s 25 point loss to the Hurricanes.
While their backline has shone at times this year, the Crusaders biggest asset is their forward pack. Their front row is filled with wiley old characters while their locking combination of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano is one of the best in the business.
The Stats That Matter
Both teams enjoyed brilliant round robin campaigns winning 11 of their 15 fixtures. The Lions boast the best points for aggregate in the competition racking up a staggering 535 points.
Johan Ackermann's side's defensive record wasn’t bad either as they only shipped 349 points while the Crusaders were slightly less effective on attack racking up 487 points.
The two sides met back in back April with the Crusaders running out 43-37 victors at Emirates Airline Park.
Last Five Head To Head Results
2016 Lions 37-43 Crusaders (Lions Home)
2015 Crusaders 34-6 Lions (Crusaders Home)
2014 Lions 7-28 Crusaders (Lions Home)
2012 Lions 13-23 Crusaders (Lions Home)
2010 Crusaders 46-19 (Crusaders Home)
Verdict: Lions 17/20
While the Crusaders are knockout specialists, I think their safety first approach to the game may come back to bite them. I forsee Ruan Combrinck grabbing a double and Elton Jantjies putting on a kicking masterclass that sees the hosts through to the semi-finals.