The Christchurch-based Crusaders outclassed the Johannesburg-based Lions 37-18 to win their record-extending ninth Super Rugby final on Saturday.
The Lions, chasing their first title, lost in the final for the third consecutive year, including a 25-17 defeat to the Crusaders in last year‘s title-decider in Johannesburg.
The writing was on the wall early for the visiting Lions when the Crusaders neutralized the rolling maul which has been their most reliable attacking weapon, producing 21 tries. The Lions had their first attempt at setting a maul from a lineout in the 10th minute but the Crusaders pack combined to hurl them back 10 meters.
The Lions had a few other chances in a first half in which they had 70 percent of possession and the same amount of territory but they were thrown back again on each occasion until they were forced to abandon the tactic. Deprived of that platform, which is the bedrock of their game, the Lions had few other attacking ideas.
Coach Scott Robertson, who performed a breakdance routine in front of his players to celebrate, has led the Crusaders to the title in each of his two years in charge. Last year‘s win ended a nine-year title drought, and Saturday‘s match was the Crusaders‘ first home final in 10 years.
“To do it back-to-back in a style like that is massive,” Robertson said.
“We made the most tackles we have all year, which shows the quality of the game and to do it here for the first time in 10 years was special.”
The Crusaders had the ball only rarely in the first half but scored tries through winger Seta Tamanivalu and fullback David Havili to take a 20-6 lead at halftime, showing the difference in efficiency between the teams. The Lions, with ball and territory, could do nothing; the Crusaders, with neither, turned every chance into points.
The Lions effectively waved the white flag when they decided to kick for goal from a penalty in the 39th, while trailing 20-3. That was an admission they could no longer rely on the strength which had carried them to the final and, from then on, the outcome of the match wasn‘t in doubt.
A try in the 53rd minute to powerful back-rower Cyle Brink brought the Lions back into the match at 23-13, giving them a final shot at victory. But a decision to kick for goal from long range in the 59th – which missed – spent the Lions‘ momentum and allowed the Crusaders to regroup.
The Crusaders were still operating on 30 percent of possession and less of territory at that point but were kept in the match by the intensity of their defense, and their ability to strike back in an instant.
A line break by flanker Matt Todd, who missed a crucial tackle on Brink, and contributions by flyhalf Richie Mo‘unga and Wallabies flanker Pete Samu, created a try between the posts for replacement scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond and the Crusaders went ahead 30-13.
When center Ryan Crotty was sin-binned, the 14-man Crusaders‘ defense yielded a try to hooker Malcolm Marx – his 12th of the season – which cut their lead to 30-18.
It was then the Crusaders fully revealed the qualities of a champion team. A man down, they produced a magnificent team try, finished by lock Scott Barrett, to finally crush the Lions resistance. Havili, Samu, winger George Bridge and Drummond all handled before Barrett crashed over.
Mo‘unga added the conversion, his seventh successful kick of the game which lifted his tally to 17 points. He also played a vital role in tries to Tamanivalu, Havili and Drummond as he increased his challenge for the All Blacks No. 10 jersey.
“Everything we threw at them they stopped,” Lions captain Warren Whiteley said. “We threw the kitchen sink at them and they deserve this win.”