The Golden Lions from Johannesburg are through to the Super Rugby Final after an epic second half comeback against the Wellington Hurricanes.
The Lions came back from a 22--3 deficit to run out 44--29 winners on a lightning quick Johannesburg surface on Saturday afternoon.
Quick Ellis Park Surface
The talk throughout the week was about how the Lions had not yet faced New Zealand opposition in this year’s competition. This weekend was to be their first real test. The pundits on New Zealand Rugby Show, ‘The Breakdown’ completely wrote the Lions off. They thought that the Hurricanes would comfortably have enough to win in Johannesburg, Ellis Park against the Lions. I watched in disbelief as Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen arrogantly dismissed the top of the log Lions’ chances. They said that the Hurricanes would be too good on a quick Johannesburg track. They thought travel and altitude would not affect them. They thought that they would be more dominant on a quick surface. They thought wrong. This Lions team can play!
After choosing to play the fixture at 2:30pm in Johannesburg on a hard, quick pitch, the Lions knew they could run the Hurricanes off their feet. The Lions chose an exceptionally mobile loose trio with the aim of exploiting the travel and altitude factors. Coach Johan Ackerman said that the Hurricanes looked tired towards the end of the first half, however he could never have predicted that the Hurricanes would implode as they did. The wheels well and truly came off in the second half, with the Lions winning the second forty 34--7.
Once the Lions started to get into their work, they got excellent ruck ball, and allowed their magnificent skill set to do the rest. The Hurricanes were out on their feet, the line speed was gone and the Cronje, Jantjies combination were able to exhibit their seriously impressive skills. The Lions were carving up a passive and exhausted Hurricanes defence. It became shadow rugby, there was no sting left in the Hurricanes defence. The breakdown became a formality, phase after phase the Lions battered the Hurricanes defence. The attack came in waves, the Lions playing with variety, running from depth, busting tackles and hitting angles. It was everything this team had built up to the last five years. Three quick tries by Vorster, Jantjies and Smith sealed the deal for the hosts. In 40 minutes the game was gone, and the Lions were into their second consecutive final.
It is very strange to hear the discontent from New Zealand about the format of the competition. New Zealand bowed to Australia’s request for more local derbies, and the new conference format. SANZAAR consists of representatives from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, who have all agreed on this format. The Lions have not played any New Zealand teams, which critics say has been unfair. Of course this is unfair, however critics are quick to forget that the Lions beat the Blues, Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders in last year’s competition. If this year is unfair, then last year was also unfair. The Lions can only play the teams in front of them. The complaints also oddly seemed to come once it was clear that the Lions would top the Super Rugby log. The timing seems all too convenient.
Beauden Barrett Deserved Yellow
There have been a few questions about the Beauden Barrett yellow card. The reaction out of New Zealand has been extraordinary. Whilst I support the need for neutral referees, I cannot understand the outrage from New Zealand.
The yellow card came with the Lions red--hot on attack after a line break from Ruan Combrinck. The winger was brought down by a high Beauden Barrett tackle just outside the Hurricanes’ 22 meter area. Barrett immediately rolled away from the tackle area, with the ball held between his knees. Referee Jaco Peyper blew for a penalty and issued Barrett with a yellow card. This was either a cynical or a clumsy act by Barrett, leaving Peyper with a decision to make. This was semi final rugby, the best versus the best. Rugby is a dynamic game, referees should be empathetic but did Peyper really have any other choice? Just because Peyper is from South Africa, does not mean the decision is the wrong one.
New Zealand Discontent
Finally, many in New Zealand are generally unhappy about the refereeing, as well as the competition format. This seems to be an all too common trend when a New Zealand team loses. Nobody in New Zealand is talking about how the Lions beat the Hurricanes playing a fantastic, high intensity brand of rugby. The Lions beat the Hurricanes playing a high--tempo, attractive brand of rugby. The Lions not only showed sublime skills and speed, but they also showed the poise of championship team. Perhaps a more humble approach would have seen the Wellington Hurricanes beat the Golden Lions and the All Blacks beat the British and Irish Lions.
The Golden Lions deserve praise, they are hosting their first ever Super Rugby Final.
But, why are we still talking about refereeing and the competition format?