The Crusaders outclassed, out-thought and outplayed the Lions, beating last year’s losing finalists 17-25 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg to claim their eighth Super Rugby title – and first since 2014.
No team had ever travelled across the Indian Ocean and won a final, but Scott Robinson’s men changed that.
The Crusaders are the only team to have won a title outside their own country as in 2000 the Kiwi side claimed a title in Canberra against the Brumbies to go with the 2017 victory which was in their 12th final.
The New Zealanders raced to a 3-25 lead inside 53 minutes with tries from Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue and Kieren Read, while Richie Mo’unga kicked two penalties and two conversions to cancel out Elton Jantjies’ first-half three-pointer.
Kwagga Smith was red carded for a dangerous tackle on David Havili in the last minute of the first-half, giving his team a mountain to climb.
The Lions, like they did against the Sharks and Hurricanes, mounted a comeback, scoring twice through Malcolm Marx and Corne Fourie, in the final quarter.
The Crusaders exacted revenge for last year’s quarter-final defeat, in the City of Gold. Robinson’s men played perfect knockout rugby, while the Lions did not.
Questions will be asked of yet another slow start, mirroring the 3-14 quarter-final and 3-22 semi-final comebacks against the Sharks and Hurricanes, respectively.
Johan Ackermann, who has done wonders for the Gauteng franchise, is leaving the union and taking up a coaching place in the United Kingdom.
He will wonder “what if?” after Jaco Kriel decided to not kick a first-half penalty with the scores at 3-12, instead, opting to kick for touch and ultimately, his side lost possession and the scoring opportunity.
Ackermann will also bemoan Smith’s brain-freeze but can have no complaints about the red card. There were many mistakes and wrong options taken as his chargers squandered territory and possession in the Crusaders’ 22.
The South Africans could not contend with the Crusaders’ rush defence and were dominated in the set pieces, where they lost two important lineout throws and Ruan Dreyer was constantly penalised by Jaco Peyper.
Conversely, Robinson’s men were calm and composed, taking the points when they were on offer and finishing off moves with tries as opposed to knock-ons.
The Crusaders did not commit numbers to the breakdown, often only sending one or two players to contest. This allowed the defence to spread and shut down the space for the Lions’ dangerous backline and mobile loose trio.
The Lions, to their credit, fought back, against the odds with a man down, but some more costly errors halted any chance of them getting their first Super Rugby title since 1993.
It was too little, too late and no miracles in the Highveld this time as the Lions lose back-to-back finals.
Final Score: Lions 17 (3) Crusaders 25 (15)
Tries – Marx, Fourie
Pen – Jantjies
Con – Jantjies (2)
Cards – Smith (Red, 39th minute)
Tries – Tamanivalu, Goodhue, Read
Pen – Mo’unga (2)
Con – Mo’unga (2)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (RSA)
Assistant Ref 1: Glen Jackson (NZ)
Assistant Ref 2: Marius van der Westhuizen (RSA)
TMO: Marius Jonker (RSA)
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Albertus Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (captain), 5 Francois Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Francois de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza.
15 David Havili, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Seta Tamanivalu, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (captain), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge.