Preview: Lions v Crusaders
Preview: Lions v CrusadersSHARE
It makes for an entertaining, if not very intriguing, encounter at Ellis Park on Saturday.
History will tell you the Lions (or Transvaal) as a stand-alone franchise has only beaten the Crusaders twice – 1997 and 2007.
If you're the superstitious kind, 2017 should be their next win.
However, the remarkable growth they have shown in the last few years – or even just since that horrible loss to the Hurricanes (17-50) back in April – suggests the Lions could even be slight favourites.
They did lose to the Crusaders (37-43) at Ellis Park, about four weeks before the Hurricanes disaster.
However, the lessons they learnt from those defeats – lessons they certainly took to heart – has seen them score five bonus-point victories over teams such as the Blues, Jaguares, Bulls, Sharks and Kings. They scored an amazing 35 tries – an average of seven per game in those games.
There was only one defeat – their B-team losing to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires last week, while the A-team was resting up in Johannesburg in anticipation of the play-offs.
In contrast the Crusaders' run-in to the play-offs has been a lot more erratic – three defeats (to the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes) and three victories (over the Rebels, Blues and Waratahs).
Apart from the 13-try (85-26) rout of the Rebels, the Crusaders scored just 10 tries in the other five matches and surprisingly leaked 22.
However, the most significant point of reference is the Crusaders' win at Ellis Park back in April.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann believes his team has grown enough since that game to ensure their remarkable journey doesn't end this week.
"Out of that game and the loss to the Hurricanes we learnt some valuable lessons about playing under pressure and what to do if things don't go your way ," Ackermann told rugby365.
He felt slow starts and sloppy play have been their most costly mistakes this season – especially some intercept tries they conceded against the Crusaders and Hurricanes.
"The key against New Zealand teams is that you can't afford to fall behind [give them a lead]," Ackermann said, adding: "You have to keep them under pressure and stay in the game.
"If you look back to our games [victories] against the Blues and Chiefs you will see that we started well and gave ourselves a chance.
"Against the Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders they managed to build up a big lead far too quickly . With the quality of those teams you won't easily close such a gap."
The Lions mentor pointed to the set pieces as among the Crusaders' considerable strengths.
Discipline will also be key.
"If I look back to this past weekend, we conceded 17 penalties," he said of the B-team's loss to the Jaguares.
"We gave the Jaguares free points in the first half – they went three, six, nine and 12. That is something you can't afford in a knock-out game.
"Then, also, our defence. In the last game against the Crusaders [Ryan] Crotty scored three tries.
"We have the advantage that we are playing at home, but in these games you can't afford that your set pieces, discipline and defence slips below acceptable standards."
Crusaders captain Kieran Read is expecting another high-paced, high-scoring game.
"Looking at the way they've played this year, they're not going to go down wondering," Read said of the Lions.
"They'll come out and really attack.
"We just have to be nice and controlled as much as we can."
Players to watch:
For the Lions: The backline strike power will come in the form of Springboks Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Elton Jantjies and Francois de Klerk – while Rohan Janse van Rensburg could be the 'secret weapon' in midfield. The Lions would hope that captain Warren Whiteley's shoulder lasts the full 80 minutes, with Jaco Kriel, Franco Mostert and Julian Redelinghuys other key forwards.
For the Crusaders: The Crusaders have plenty of international class in their backline as well Israel Dagg, Ryan Crotty and Andy Ellis, while Johnny McNicholl and Richie Mo'unga good enough to wear the famous black jersey with a silver fern. Then, of course, there is All Black captain Kieran Read and probably the most underrated loose forward Jordan Taufua, All Black locks Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano, as well as an all-All Black front row of Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Wyatt Crockett.
Head to head: You start with the captains and No.8s – Warren Whiteley (Lions) versus Kieran Read (Crusaders). There are plenty of those battles across the park – Lionel Mapoe (Lions) versus Ryan Crotty (Crusaders) at outside centre; Elton Jantjies (Lions) against Richie Mo'unga (Crusaders) at flyhalf) Jaco Kriel (Lions) versus Jordan Taufua (Crusaders) on the flank. And there are many others.
Prediction: The Crusaders have won their last seven games against the Lions, scoring 28 points or more on all but one occasion. The Lions have won their last four games on home soil, a fifth straight win would be their longest home winning streak in a single Super Rugby season. The Crusaders have won 19 of their last 23 games against South African opposition, including victories in each of their last four play-off games against them. The Lions have won an average of 8.7 turnovers per game so far in Super Rugby 2016, the most of any team and 1.2 per game more than the Crusaders. Only one player this season (Matt Faddes – 29) has made more clean breaks than the Crusaders duo Nemani Nadolo (28) and Johnny McNicholl (27). It is going to be exciting, hair-raising and entertaining. It is also a tough call to make. We feel a slightly more mature Lions will sneak a late winner – five points or less.
By Jan de Koning
* Statistical information provided by Opta Sports