Preview: Lions v Crusaders
SUPER RUGBY FINAL: There are shades of the 1995 World Cup Final - the fancied and in-form New Zealand outfit against a resilient South African team.
Home ground advantage may well be the only thing that separates the two gladiators in the arena.
The drama of the 2017 Final will be played out in front of a sell-out (62,000 spectators) Ellis Park.
Ask any player what he thinks of the occasion and the answer is simply: "It is going to be awesome."
But there is a sideshow that adds to the drama.
The hour glass is running out for Lions coach Johan Ackermann, who will head to English Premiership side Gloucester after the Final.
Ackermann said it has been his "dream" to finish his stint at the Lions in a Final at a full Ellis Park.
"I have been embracing everything," he told a media briefing, adding that he was "treasuring every minute" with the players.
He said he will have "no regrets" after Saturday, win or lose.
He instructed his team to "play with freedom and enjoy the moment".
The Lions, rated the most entertaining team in the competition, face a Crusaders outfit with a defence that has been rather stingy in recent weeks.
However, Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor said the Lions' attack - 90 tries in 17 matches this season - pose a massive threat.
"They are a good team," Taylor said in a teleconference from the team's base in Johannesburg.
"They kept the Hurricanes guessing and it paid off for them," he said of the Lions' six-try (44-29) demolition of the team that beat them in the Final last year.
The hooker, who signed on with the Crusaders to 2021, said the key for the Crusaders at Ellis Park this coming Saturday is to play the game they have been playing all year and which got them into the Final.
"We will have to apply pressure in different areas and exploit a few of their weaknesses," the 26-year-old Taylor said.
"We have to be ready for anything and be prepared to work really hard."
They are also coming out of two matches - the quarterfinal and semifinal - that were played in a very wet and cold Christchurch.
On Saturday they will enjoy much warmer conditions, with the temperature likely to peak in the lower 20s.
The Crusaders will most likely be a bit more expansive, although they will not neglect their defence.
"In wet weather, you look to kick a bit more and control it with your forwards," the hooker said, adding: "On a dry track you will be looking to play and throw the ball around.
"We have done that throughout the main part of the season.
"On the dry track, it is going to be a pretty good and entertaining game."
The other big adjustment for the Crusaders is to go from just over 10,000 spectators to a jam-packed stadium with over 60,000.
"It is going to be awesome. We have spoken about it all week, what to expect and prepare for it as best we can.
"We are excited to play in front of such an awesome crowd in an awesome stadium."
Players to watch:
For the Lions: There is the excitement of Sevens specialist Albertus Smith, with deceptive strength and outstanding pace. There is captain Jaco Kriel's amazing workrate, matched only by star lock Francois Mostert. There is the strength of hooker Malcolm Marx. Most of all there is the halfback combination of flyhalf Elton Jantjies and scrumhalf Ross Cronje.
For the Crusaders: From David Havili at fullback to Joe Moody at prop there is class all over the park. The all-All Black tight forwards, ably lead by lock Sam Whitelock, holds the key. The playmakers like Ryan Crotty and Richie Mo'unga will keep the Lions' defence honest.
Head to head: There are plenty intriguing battles across the park, but the most import is in the halfback channels - Elton Jantjies and Ross Cronje (Lions) against Richie Mo'unga and Bryn Hall (Crusaders). However, they can't function without quality ball. That brings the tight forwards into the frame, where you have plenty of Springbok versus All Black battles - FrancoisMostert (Lions) versus Sam Whitelock (Crusaders) and Malcolm Marx (Lions) versus Codie Taylor (Crusaders) to name but a few.
2016: Lions won 42-25, Johannesburg (quarterfinal)
2016: Crusaders won 43-37, Johannesburg
2015: Crusaders won 34-6, Christchurch
2014: Crusaders won 28-7, Johannesburg
2012: Crusaders won 23-13, Johannesburg
2010: Crusaders won 46-19, Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 32-20, Johannesburg
2008: Crusaders won 31-6, Christchurch
2007: Lions won 9-3, Johannesburg
2006: Crusaders won 43-15, Christchurch
Prediction: The Lions ran out to a 42-25 win when they last met the Crusaders (2016 quarterfinal), snapping a seven-game losing streak against the Christchurch franchise. The last time a team won a Super Rugby final played outside their own home country was the Crusaders in 2000, who did so after travelling to Australia to face the Brumbies in the big dance. The Crusaders have been crowned Super Rugby champions on seven occasions previously and featured in 11 finals in total, both records in the competition. However, the Christchurch-based side has lost each of their last two finals, only the Sharks have lost more than two in a row when reaching the Grand Final. Three of the previous four Grand Finals to be contested by a side from New Zealand and a side from South Africa have been won by the New Zealand outfit. However, the one defeat in that run was the heaviest ever in a final (Bulls 61-17 Chiefs). Eight of the last 11 Super Rugby Grand Finals have been decided by margins of eight points or fewer, however, the three exceptions in that run were all games between a South African side and a team from New Zealand. The Lions head into this fixture on the back of a 14-game winning streak; the Crusaders are the only team in Super Rugby history to have won more games in succession, which they've done twice (15 straight in 2002-03; 16 straight in 2005-06). The Crusaders won each of their five games outside New Zealand this season, scoring an average of 43 points per game across those fixtures. South African teams have won nine of their last 12 play-off fixtures at home against New Zealand opposition; in fact, the Stormers are the only team in Super Rugby history to have lost such a fixture (four instances). Only once in Super Rugby history has a team contested consecutive plat-offs without winning at least one of them (Crusaders in 2003 & 2004). The Lions (572 metres) and Crusaders (513 metres) are two of only three teams (Hurricanes, 520 metres) to have gained an average of 500+ metres per game this season. The Lions have scored 30 tries in the final quarter of games so far this season, more than any other team, while they also conceded just five in the same time frame, fewer than any other team. Wyatt Crockett and Kieran Read are the only current Crusaders players to feature the last time the Canterbury side won the Grand Final, in 2008 against the Waratahs. Andries Coetzee gained 169 metres last week, the most of any player across either of the semifinals and has made a season total of 1,323 metres which is the third most of any player in
the entire competition. Ryan Crotty has crossed for five tries in his last four games against the Lions, all five of those tries coming at Ellis Park. There is unlike to be much more than a converted try between the two teams in the end. We feel the Lions will edge it - by seven points.
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Albertus Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Francois Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Francois de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.
Date: Saturday, August 5
Venue: Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 16.00 (14.00 GMT; 02.00 NZ time, Sunday, August 6)
Expected weather: Some cloud cover, but fine and warm. High of 21°C and low of 7°C
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
By Jan de Koning
* Statistics provided by Opta Sports & sportguru.info