The Crusaders beat the Lions 37-18 at AMI Stadium, Christchurch and claimed an unprecedented ninth Super Rugby championship, defending the title they won last year against the South Africans.
Was there ever any doubt?
Scott “Razor” Robertson’s men were simply unstoppable, living off scraps, and taking their opportunities when they came.
Robertson has gone ‘back-to-back’ as both a player and now a coach, resurrecting the Canterbury side’s fortunes after nearly a decade without a championship.
Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” rang around the ground also known as ‘Graveyard of Broken dreams’ for away teams.
The New Zealanders ran in four tries to two, leaving the Lions licking their wounds.
Semi-final and final Man-of-the-Match Richie Mo’unga kicked 17 points in another scintillating performance at first-five eight.
This is the Crusaders 21st home playoff/knockout/finals victory at home in the history of this famous tournament and they are still undefeated in Christchurch.
They have only lost three times in the last two seasons and have beaten the Lions 10 times in their last 11.
In the end, the travel, the jet-lag and the mastery of the Crusaders proved too much.
The Kiwis scored the most tries in the competition and ranked first for tries and points conceded; they are deserved winners.
Unfortunately, it is the third consecutive final defeat for the Lions, who lost to the Hurricanes in Wellington in 2016, and in Johannesburg against the Crusaders, last year.
The defending champions had only 30% territory and 36% territory throughout the match, but as only they do, with every half-chance, they punish you.
Seta Tamanivalu and David Havili both crossed after Elton Jantjies kicked the ball away cheaply.
The Lions dominated the opening quarter and should have scored first after Ruan Combrinck’s midfield break.
The winger ghosted through Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock but was tackled short of the goal-line.
The ball was recycled too slowly and after several phases, the Lions were held up.
To beat a quality side like the Crusaders, you have to take every opportunity and hope for some luck.
The Crusaders stopped the Lions at the source.
Too many Lions players went missing, they had no plan B – something they have not addressed in the past three years – and their kicking game was poor.
The home team defended the driving maul, negated Kwagga Smith and Malcolm Marx at the breakdown and halted the South African’s big ball carriers.
Swys de Bruin was outcoached by his counterpart.
The Crusaders smothered the breakdown, slowing the ball down and not allowing them to attack the wide channels.
Despite all their territory and possession, the Lions could not break their opponent’s brick wall-like defence.
Elton Jantjies and Mo’unga traded early penalties before the game broke open.
George Bridge, looking to equal Ben Lam’s Super Rugby try-scoring record went close, but he was tackled into touch.
It was a warning sign.
From the next lineout, the defending champions attacked the Lions’ midfield through Heiden Bedwell-Curtis and Whitelock.
Bryn Hall recycled the ball quickly, Mo’unga floated wide to Seta Tamanivalu, who powered his way over in the corner. Easy as you like.
The Lions, still having the better of the game, went close but Ruan Dreyer knocked the ball on in contact.
It came from another well-defended driving maul by the hosts which prompted a change in tactics by the visitors.
Jantjies’ mental implosion gave the Crusaders an attacking five-metre scrum after a wasteful up-and-under was gathered by Mo’unga.
The flyhalf took the kick quickly, sending the ball down to the Lions goal-line.
Jantjies, tracking back, collected, took his time and waited for the ball to roll into the in-goal area.
It did not, instead, it stopped on the line and the standoff dotted down thinking he would get a 22 drop-out.
Referee Angus Gardner awarded a scrum despite the protestations of the men in red and white.
He explained the recent law changes and after the Lions’ front row was pinged for hinging, Mo’unga pushed the lead to 10 points.
Moments’ later, another Jantjies highball was gathered on halfway by Mo’unga, who broke through some weak tackling before passing on his inside shoulder to the supporting Jack Goodhue.
The centre was caught from behind by Lionel Mapoe, but the quick ball was sent to Havili and the fullback crashed over.
Mo’unga’s conversion made it 20-3 – game over because the Crusaders were and never give up such a commanding lead, especially not at home and in such a big game.
Jantjies doubled his team’s tally on the stroke of halftime, but Mo’unga’s third penalty of the game made it a three-converted try deficit again.
Lions continued their dominance of territory and possession.
Several attacks were repelled as they searched for a way back into the contest.
Their driving maul dismantled, they opted for scrums instead of kicking for the corner.
The move backfired when Dreyer was pinged with the Lions on the Crusaders 5m.
They broke through the red wall, eventually, when Cyle Brink raced away, breaking through Matt Todd and Bedwell-Curtis to give his team a glimmer of hope.
But, as is often the case, the man who lives his life in hope, will die in despair.
Combrinck missed a long-range penalty and two minutes’ later, Mitchell Drummond was in on the act.
Todd broke into the 22, offloaded out the back door to Codie Taylor, who in turn, sent Drummond over under the posts.
Ryan Crotty was yellow carded for cynical play. From the resultant penalty, Malcolm Marx crashed over for his 12th try of the season.
The coup de grâce.
Despite being a man down, the Crusaders struck again.
From a quick lineout throw Bridge danced his way into the Lions 22.
Drummond and Pete Samu exchanged passes before Andrew Makalio sent Scott Barrett away under the posts.
Final score: Crusaders 37 (20) Lions 18 (6)
Tries – Tamanivalu, Havili, Drummond, Barrett
Pen – Mo’unga (3)
Con – Mo’unga (4)
Cards – Crotty (Yellow, 67′)
Tries – Brink, Marx
Pen – Jantjies (2)
Con – Jantjies
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Glen Jackson
Assistant Ref 2: Nic Berry
TMO: Shane McDermott
15. David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Braydon Ennor.
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrink, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Albertus Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques Van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Corne Fourie, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 23 Howard Mnisi.