Crusaders stun Lions to lift trophy
Brenden Nel
August 05, 2017

The Crusaders broke a nine-year drought to beat a 14-man Emirates Lions and lift their first Vodacom Super Rugby trophy since 2008 with an enthralling and dramatic 25-17 victory.

In a game that was overshadowed by the red card to Lions flanker Kwagga Smith, the New Zealand side produced a complete performance to overcome altitude, a partisan home crowd and the travel factor to record only the second victory in a final away from home and break a 14-game home unbeaten record for the Lions.

The victory saw the Crusaders claim their eighth Super Rugby title and end a dream finale for Lions coach Johan Ackermann, who will now leave South Africa having lost a final as a player, and two as a coach as he heads to Gloucester for the new challenge in the English Premiership.

On a day of drama and high emotions, it was Smith’s red card that infuriated home fans, as he collided with Crusaders winger David Havili in the air with the Crusaders fullback falling badly and leaving referee Jaco Peyper no choice just before halftime but to flash red and reduce the Lions to 14 men.

Despite the emotion around the red card, the decision was both fair and just and, while unfortunate, came at a time where the Lions were hardly winning the contact battle and were struggling at 12-3 behind.

While it would be easy to blame the red card for the loss, the reality is that the Lions struggled to impose themselves until late in the second half, and even then lost all the big moments of the game as the Crusaders were both tactically and physically superior for most of the game.

The biggest fear for the Lions was that they would suffer the same bad start as they did against the Hurricanes in the semifinal, and their worst fears were realised when they started as badly as they did a week before.

If Lions fans were honest, they will realise they never won any of the big moments in the game, and that included three big lineouts in the second half on attack when they had a chance to perfect a great comeback.

Still, it would be unfair not to pay tribute to the revolution that Ackermann has brought to South African rugby and the joy that the Lions have brought over the past few years with their positivity and enterprising play.

While sport may be a theatre of great moments, it remains a tragedy that Ackermann hasn’t been rewarded for the change he has brought to South African rugby.

The match may have started on a high as the atmosphere radiated expectation, but the early exchanges saw the Lions look more jittery and do much of the play in their own half.

True to form the Crusaders enjoyed the suffocation game, and much like their semifinal win over the Chiefs last week, scored off their opposition mistakes, and then came up with some big plays when it mattered, with captain Sam Whitelock standing out with a lineout domination that truly was immense.

The first blow came eight minutes into the game when the Lions attacked and Elton Jantjies was flattened by a tackle, with the ball spilling loose and Seta Tamanivalu snatching it up and running 65 metres to score as the Lions were caught without cross-cover defence.


The try, against the run of play, was a mammoth blow to the home side, who again struggled to impose themselves on their home ground and made small mistakes that cost them.

A few minutes later Jack Goodhue went over as the Lions defence broke too easily, allowing an overlap that the midfielder lapped up to make it 12-0 and leave the home crowd stunned by the result.

Jantjies eventually put the Lions on the board with a penalty in the 27th minute, but the good moments were too few, too far apart for the home side.

Shortly before the red card the Lions had a telling decision, to take three points within striking distance or go to the sidelines. They chose the latter but fluffed the attack as the Crusaders defended the maul superbly.

And then Smith’s moment came. As he made contact with Havili, there was no intent to injure the player, but the laws are clear that the player in the air has all the rights.

Havili landed badly, first hitting his own player on the way down and leaving the referee little choice but to dish out the harshest punishment possible.

The penalty meant that the Lions' dream was shattered at halftime, 15-3 down and with 14 men. And that turned to a nightmare shortly after the break when Keiran Reid went over to extend the lead and the Crusaders found another penalty to be 25-3 up on the hour mark.

The Lions though were brave to the last minute. Outgunned and outnumbered, they dug deep and showed resolve.

Determined to leave it all on the park, they attacked and attacked, finally finding some reward when Malcolm Marx went over in the 64th minute.

And when Corne Fourie added his name to the scoresheet in the 73rd minute the dream flickered back to life.

But three lost lineouts in the red zone and a knock-on on the line by Rohan Janse van Rensburg proved the will was there, but this simply wasn’t too be their day.

The Lions left it all on the park, but were outmanouvered and out-thought on a night that belonged to the South Islanders.

The Crusaders had it all against them, altitude, the crowd and the travel and they overcame it all through smart play and tactical genius. They are worthy champions.


Emirates Lions – try: Malcolm Marx, Corne Fourie. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Elton Jantjies (1)

Crusaders - tries: Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, Kieran Reid. Conversions: Richie Mounga (2). Penalties: Mounga (1)/

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