Cape Town – It has never happened before in Super Rugby.
But the planets are gradually aligning for the Crusaders and Lions to create a first: be the same two teams in successive finals in the competition.
Following the quarter-finals this weekend, the Lions are likely to be installed as favourites for their home semi against the Waratahs, while the eight-time champion ‘Saders will similarly be fancied – if only just? – to prevail in an epic all-New Zealand affair against the Hurricanes in Christchurch.
Should that scenario play out, the Crusaders would tee up a home showpiece on August 4 against the Highveld-based outfit – a carbon copy of the 2017 final in Johannesburg, when the visitors won 25-17.
An immediate repeat final has never occurred before, stretching right back to 1993 when it all really started as a major competition (the then-Super 10).
The closest was in a period when consistently strong Crusaders and Brumbies sides met three times in the showpiece in five years, but never consecutively: the finals between them were in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
But first, of course, there are significant obstacles for both the Lions and ‘Saders to overcome, even if they will be heartened by respective, comfortable quarter-final triumphs.
The Cantabrians whipped the occasionally resilient but also awfully error-prone Sharks 40-10, while the Lions also had some breathing space at the final whistle after seeing off the Jaguares 40-23 at Emirates Airline Park.
The dream for the scores of South Africans who wish to see the Lions win their first modern Super Rugby title after successive appearances in finals is for the Hurricanes to upset the champions next weekend – they are the side in the competition likeliest to do it, and in terms of log points generated by both it is also the “proper” showpiece in the minds of many.
If that result does happen, the Lions would simply have to keep their eyes firmly on the ball against the Waratahs to ensure another Johannesburg final.
It remains a cold fact that no SA team has yet managed to win any kind off knockout match in the Land of the Long White Cloud, so any avoidance of a showpiece in Christchurch would naturally be treasured by Warren Whiteley’s troops.
They do look in a good space to knock over the ‘Tahs, despite the Sydney-based team producing a rousing second half turnaround on Saturday – helped by scoring three tries with Waisake Naholo off the park with a particularly costly yellow card – to beat the Highlanders.
Frustratingly inconsistent for long periods during ordinary season, the Lions have now produced two pretty rousing home games on the trot, if you add in last weekend’s slick 38-12 derby downing of the Bulls.
They have found the perfect time for a morale-boosting head of steam, and will also be buoyed ahead of the semi-final by knowledge that they thrashed the Waratahs 29-0 away much earlier in the season.
With Malcolm Marx monumentally to the fore in a number of ways, the Lions’ pack ensured vital domination of their South American opponents and they ran some smart lines on the attack as well, aided by Elton Jantjies’ welcome assertiveness and sparkle at flyhalf.
The brawny Springbok hooker scored a runaway-train try of his own after an intercept, but was particularly lethal at the breakdown.
“He’s an absolute menace over the ball … and usually completely legally, too,” enthused top SuperSport pundit Nick Mallett of Marx, who made several steals or hold-ups.
Joel Stransky was barely less effusive: “Everything that’s good about the Lions, he seems to be involved in.”
One concern for the Lions, looking ahead to the semis, was that Marx was clearly experiencing some sort of discomfort shortly before he was withdrawn in the 70th minute, while another form player in blindside flank Cyle Brink didn’t reappear after halftime; he had hurt an upper arm or shoulder while making a ton-of-bricks tackle.
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