Lions reject underdog tag in Super Rugby final
South Africa's Lions have defiantly rejected their allocated role in the narrative around Saturday's Super Rugby final — as the last, minor obstacle on the Crusaders' road to a ninth championship.
According to that story line, the Johannesburg-based Lions, beaten finalists in each of the last two years, are brave underdogs, likely to put up a fight before succumbing to a heavy loss to the defending champions in Christchurch.
In the traditional rounds of gamesmanship that precede a major final, coaches are happy to embrace the underdog tag, believing it relieves pressure and provides extra motivation. The Crusaders did so before beating the Lions 25-17 in last year's final in Johannesburg.
But coach Swys de Bruin has rejected the suggestion the Lions are destined to be three-time losers. While acknowledging the strength of the Crusaders, who topped the regular season table with a 14-2 record and swept through the quarterfinals and semifinals with wins over the Sharks (40-10) and Hurricanes (30-12), he said the Lions were in Christchurch to "do a job."
The Crusaders are unbeaten in 20 playoff matches at home. But while de Bruin said a win would be a miracle, he added: "I believe in miracles.
"The fact is that they are favorites, they are a very good team. But it is still 80 minutes between four white lines so it will be interesting."
De Bruin has made two minor personnel changes but says there'll be no change to the style of play that has carried the Lions to the final. The Lions' forward pack is formidable and it's rolling maul, steered by hooker Malcolm Marx, is the best in the tournament.
De Bruin endorsed the ability of Elton Jantjes to guide the Lions' backline, though the mercurial flyhalf is often criticized in South Africa.
Most importantly, de Bruin cautioned against being caught up in emotions surrounding what could be the last match for several Lions poised to leave at the end of the season.
"What is vital is to not make the occasion too big this time around, with too many emotions and about individuals and stuff," he said. "It has to be about the team, just about the team and stick to what works for us."
In one dig at the Crusaders, de Bruin suggested their success might be due in part to generous treatment for New Zealand teams from referees. He will meet Australian referee Angus Gardner before the match to appeal for fairness.
"They can't, because they are champions and people think they are good, get away with certain stuff," de Bruin told Supersport. "I will make sure we meet with the refs about that.
"Because, going through their clips ... there is a lot of things they get away with, more than other teams get away with."
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson, who won the title last year in his first season in charge, said de Bruin's comments were "potentially" an attempt at gamesmanship.
"One thing is we have great line speed," he said. "(Backs coach) Ronan O'Gara has spent a lot of time creating a real strength for us which is the ability to get off the line. Maybe that is why it is mentioned."
A problem for the Lions is the Crusaders have no obvious weaknesses. Their pack is of such strength that Robertson was forced to leave All Blacks loosehead Wyatt Crockett out of his matchday 23, though this will be Crockett's last match and he is the Crusaders' most capped player.
The Crusaders backline is clinically efficient, guided by young flyhalf Richie Mo'unga who last week outplayed the All Blacks incumbent Beauden Barrett.
Robertson expected a "brutal" final.
"They get to travel this time and they'll be just as emotional and passionate around getting to their maiden title, so we're going to have to be very good."