The Crusaders won their ninth Vodacom Super Rugby title — and the second in as many years — as they downed the Emirates Lions 37-18 in the final yesterday.
It seems the bridesmaid tag will forever be with the Lions as they succumbed to their third straight final defeat in as many years while the Crusaders gave coach Scott Robertson a perfect record with two final wins from two in charge.
It was always going to be a hard slog for the Lions to travel halfway across the world and win a final in New Zealand, and especially against a side with a perfect record of 20 wins out of 20 in playoff games before this final.
But in the end it was the Lions’ own mistakes, the suffocation of the rush defence and the inability to counter what is an exceptional limitation of mistakes by the home side that eventually cost the Lions any chance of a major upset win.
There is no doubt the Lions had more than enough ball in the game, but it was what they did with it, the amount of mistakes they made and their options that made them get reduced to ordinary opposition in the face of a clinical and exceptionally good Crusaders team.
The loss of their rolling maul — the key element in the Crusaders win — was the biggest blow to the Lions, as were two crucial elements that made a difference at crucial times in the game, and both involved flyhalf Elton Jantjies.
The two moments that made the difference for the Lions came at crucial times, where centimetres lost by Jantjies caused a ripple on the scoreboard that was hard to contain.
The first, a lapse of reason by Jantjies as he thought a ball kicked downfield had crossed the line, but didn’t, led to a five metre scrum that cost the Lions three more points.
Jantjies made the cardinal mistake of not dotting down, but rather picking up the ball and carrying it over, leaving Gardner no choice but to award the five metre scrum.
It was an error that only cost three points but seemed to rattle Jantjies more than usual as two minutes later he put an aimless high kick downfield that was taken by his opposite number Richie Mo’unga, and returned with plenty as the flyhalf sidestepped several tackles to put Jack Goodhue close to the line and then a phase later, see David Havili go over.
At that stage — the Lions were still in the game after the flyhalves swopped early penalties and Semi Tamanivalu bumped off Ruan Combrinck easily to score the opening try after a defensive system error by the Lions.
It was a telling blow that left the Lions 20-3 down a few minutes from halftime.
Jantjies late penalty made it 20-6 but considering the possession and chances the Lions had in the first half, it was always going to be an uphill battle from there.
The second Jantjies moment came after Mo’unga extended the lead early in the second half and the Lions flyhalf broke close to the line, looking like he would score, only for replays to show it inches short of the line.
Cyle Brink — one of the finds of the season — gave the Lions hope by breaking a tackle on the 22 and surging ahead for the try.
But as with everytime there was hope, the Crusaders simply struck back, with Mitchell Drummond scoring a few minutes later from a beautiful attack which saw the ball move through several sets of hands.
A late yellow card for Ryan Crotty’s cynical play was probably just reward for the Lions, but while there was brief hope when Malcolm Marx bludgeoned his way over, this simply was too big a mountain to climb.
Scott Barrett’s late try sealed the Lions fate and underlined just how difficult it is nowadays for sides to win in New Zealand.
Crusaders — tries: Seta Tamanivalu, David Havili, Mitchell Drummond, Scott Barrett. Conversions: Richie Mo’unga (4). Penalties: Mo’unga (3)
Emirates Lions – tries: Cyle Brink, Malcolm Marx. Conversions: Elton Jantjies. Penalties: Jantjies (2). – Supersport
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