The Crusaders have been phenomenal under Scott Robertson with a 33-3 record, and are yet to lose a game at home in two years. When you consider that the franchise has never lost a playoff game at home either, the odds against the Lions continue to stack up.
Faced with an almost impossible task, what is the best possible game plan for the Lions to pull off an improbable upset? There are a number of factors in this match that will provide at least an even contest when you dive deeper into the matchup.
The Hurricanes found their pack was ultimately outmatched by the Crusaders ‘Rolls Royce’ version in the semifinal. Their star backs were almost completely nullified with slow ball and lethargic carries into the red and black wall.
What makes this contest more intriguing is the Lions have an equally strong pack, with possibly the competition’s most valuable player Malcolm Marx up front.
Marx has proven his world-class ability over the last year. He performs his core duties very well in addition to being a force with ball in hand. He leads the competition in lineout throwing efficiency at 90% and is part of a Lions front row that has decimated opposition scrums.
Jumper Franco Mostert leads the competition in lineout takes and steals, while Marvin Orie also ranks in the top 10 as a reliable second jumper. The Lions set piece platform will match, if not test the Crusaders pack. The lineout maul has been an obvious strength, which the Lions will use inside the 5 when they get the opportunity.
It is conceivable that the Lions will be able to disrupt the Crusaders set piece by competing at the lineout, and swing momentum with penalties at scrum time. They may be able to stifle the Crusaders phase play by making this a stop-start affair. The longer they can prevent the Crusaders from achieving continuity, the greater their chances of pulling off an upset.
The Lions tight five is built for traditional rugby, which will suit if wet weather packs in. The forecast for showers around kickoff will be welcomed by the visiting side, not that it will be wholly for their own benefit, but it is generally an equalizer between sides.
The Crusaders will be challenged to keep their platform stable and should props Joe Moody or Owen Franks be forced from the field, the pressure will be increased on replacement Michael Alaalatoa, who is the eighth most penalised player in the competition. The Lions would absolutely love Alaalatoa to be fed to them early.
The Crusaders compressed defence usually frees up space on the edge, and with fullback David Havili tasked with taking the last man, sides that are efficient in exploiting the edge can find good territorial gains against the Crusaders. Havili has proven a reliable one-on-one defender but with the team on the back foot, tries can be scored following large breaks down the left-hand side.
Seta Tamanivalu on the right wing is the matchup the Lions want to go to when offered the chance. The decision to leave rookie sensation Aphiwe Dyanti on the bench is puzzling when he possesses lightning speed that would match up perfectly.
In their two losses this year, opposition left wing Ben Lam had 75 run metres on three carries, scoring a try from a quick turnover. Tevita Li also had a big day, running for 117 metres on nine carries with three line breaks and eight defenders beaten. Rieko Ioane had his best outing of the season, torching the Crusaders with two tries, two try assists, nine defenders beaten and four line breaks in a game the Blues lost, but scored 24 points – all through left wing Ioane.
Benching impressive rookie Aphiwe Dyantyi in favour of another Springbok winger Courtnall Skosan might hurt, as Dyantyi has shown the ability to finish in tight windows and explode when given room. Either way, the Lions need to attack wide left off open side phase play and scrums to give Skosan and Dyantyi between 7-10 touches over the game. If they can bank one or two tries off those two it could be the difference.
The Lions played the 2016 final in New Zealand against the Hurricanes on a similar winters night, with light rain making the surface greasy and limiting the speed of the game. Crucial errors when trying to exit cost the Lions 14 points in a 20-3 loss.
Should wet weather be the case again, the responsibility falls on Elton Jantjies to direct the team around and kick well out-of-hand to relieve pressure. If he cannot do that, the Lions will stand no chance against the world-class kicking game of Richie Mo’unga and Bryn Hall. The Lions back three with Ruan Combrink and Andries Coetzee have to control territory risk by kicking well from the back.
Finding touch frequently slows down the game and puts the ball back in a set piece situation where the Lions can compete.
The team needs to exit well, compete at every set piece, attack the left edge in the middle third and play to their strong lineout maul when given penalties. With a bit of luck (and some rain), the Lions can keep this contest close. If it is a one-score game heading into the final 10, anything can happen.
The Lions will be hoping that ‘third time lucky’ rings true.
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