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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

New Zealand get one over Lions as Crusaders win Super Rugby title

South African team of same name as touring British and Irish side defeated in final.

Crusaders players celebrate after winning the Super Rugby title against the Lions. Gianluigi Guercia / AFP
Crusaders players celebrate after winning the Super Rugby title against the Lions. Gianluigi Guercia / AFP

Maybe it was fitting, in this of all seasons, that a New Zealand team should carry off the glory at the end against a side playing in red called the Lions, after a first half red card.

A version of this story happened somewhere else, recently, with very different results.

It was harsh on South Africa’s version of the Lions that they were the ones who the Crusaders, on behalf of New Zealand rugby, avenged.

The Christchurch franchise won out 25-17, which was comfortable enough despite a courageous late onslaught by the 14 men, in the Super Rugby final.

It finally quietened an Emirates Airline Park that had had every ticket sold since Monday. There was even a fly-past before kick off, evoking memories of 1995, Nelson Mandela, Francois Pienaar, and all that.

The Crusaders were deserving champions, given the season they have had. Famously, they were undefeated for most of it, until the other Lions in red, those representing the best of Britain and Ireland, broke their winning streak.

And yet there was a reason they had had to travel to Johannesburg for the final. South Africa’s Lions, full of verve and youthful enterprise, had matched the Crusaders’ regular season record of one lone defeat – but bettered their bonus points tally by two.

Even though it was a second successive final for the home side, though, they remain a side light on household names, at least beyond their own shores. They might have been the hosts, but they were definitely the underdogs.

Fair to say that is not the only reason the neutral spectator might have erred towards the Johannesburg side.

This was the 15th title to have ended up in New Zealand in 22 seasons of Super Rugby. The Crusaders have won eight times themselves, even if it was eight years since they last tasted victory. South Africa, by contrast, have just three titles between them.

It rarely feels like a fair fight when New Zealand teams are involved, so good are they.

At least the South Africans put up some resistance. Australian sides won none of the 26 matches they played against those from New Zealand this season.

The much-needed redesign of this competition, cutting it by three from an unwieldy 18, and hopefully making the format moderately comprehensibly, from next season is unlikely to arrest the monopolisation too much.

Picking a winner at the start of the Super Rugby season usually just feels a case of plumping for one of the New Zealand teams.

The Crusaders would not have been the universal choice at the start of this one, though, as Sam Whitelock, the victorious captain, acknowledged in his post-match TV interview.

“No one had us picked from the word go,” Whitelock said. “It was awesome, we just believed in ourselves and it has just been an amazing year.”

Against such domination, giving up a man makes it more or less mission impossible.

In truth, Smith’s red card was merely a distraction from the inevitable. The Crusaders already had a snug lead by the time, after 38 minutes, Smith dangerously upended David Havili in the air.

Like Sonny Bill Williams in the second Test of the British & Irish Lions series, testimonies to his good character counted for nought. Jaco Peyper’s decision was a clear one. Red was the only possible outcome.

It was a bleak way for Smith to end a long season that started with a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics and then a winners’ one at the Dubai Rugby Sevens in December.

And now the Lions will be broken up, with a variety of their players, as well as coach Johan Ackermann, heading overseas.

“It’s not the way we want to send them off, but we tried our best,” a tearful Jaco Kriel, the Lions captain said.

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