The Crusaders claimed their eighth Super Rugby title and first since 2008 with a 25-17 victory over 14-man Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The record-breaking 62 000 capacity crowd were silenced as their Lions heroes were denied a maiden Super Rugby title and coach Johan Ackermann was a denied what would have been a fitting farewell as he now heads to Gloucester.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders have won their first title since 2008 and coach Scott Robertson makes history by becoming the first man to win Super Rugby as both a player and a coach.
Tries from Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue and Kieran Read proved too much for the Lions who scored through Malcolm Marx and Corne Fourie although the home side showed great character by almost staging a remarkable late comeback despite being a man down.
The Crusaders led 22-3 with a quarter of a game to go but a stirring fightback from the Lions in the final quarter ran the New Zealand side close.
The Crusaders decision making was better, knowing when to commit to the breakdown and when not to. The Lions gave away too many needless penalties going off their feet at ruck time.
It was clear that Robertson won the tactical battle of the coaches on the day. But Ackermann will argue that the red card changed the course of the game.
As has been the case all season, the Crusaders’ defence was excellent. The Crusaders went low in the contact and seldom missed any tackles. They were not keen to commit more than one or two players to the breakdown, allowing for more players to be on their feet and available to make tackles. This combated the Lions’ expansive game.
The Lions thrive on having the ball but were starved of possession early in the game. For this reason, they were unable to get off to the quick start that was clearly a plan of theirs. It was an intelligent tactical display from Robertson and his men.
The game’s opening try came via a Crusaders’ counter-attack. Read’s bone-crunching tackle on Elton Jantjies forced the turnover and Tamanivalu was quick to pounce, running the length of the field to dot down with Ross Cronje unable to catch him. Mo’unga added the extras.
Soon after, the away side and seven-time champions scored their second with ten minutes gone. It was great interplay between forwards and backs as Codie Taylor made valuable metres only to be halted just short. From the ruck, the ball was recycled out to the left where Read timed his pass perfectly for Goodhue to dive over in the corner. This time, Mo’unga missed his conversion.
And they almost had a third on the fifteen-minute mark only for Israel Dagg’s final pass to go forward when the Crusaders had done well to once again punch holes in the Lions’ defence.
Then Jantjies pulled a penalty back for the home side after the Crusaders were penalised for offside.
In a game-defining twist, Kwagga Smith was red-carded two minutes before half-time for tackling David Havili in the air while Havili was going up to catch the ball.
Mo’unga slotted a penalty on the stroke of half-time as the Crusaders took a 15-3 lead in to the interval.
Three minutes after the resumption of the second-half, the Crusaders had their third, silencing the capacity crowd. A pinpoint Mo’unga cross-kick found Dagg on the right wing who did well to evade a few defenders by stepping inside before being brought down. From the ruck, the ball was recycled out to the openside and good hands from the the Kiwi outfit put Read through a gap to crash over with Havili providing the final pass with silky skills. It was a great angle run by Read. Mo’unga added the extras as the Crusaders extended their lead at 22-3.
Soon after, Mo’unga added three points from the tee to stretch the lead to 22 points.
Eventually, the Lions got their try in the 64th minute, just reward for some persistent pressure. The ball was taken through a number of phases as the home side showed good ball retention. Ruan Combrinck showed his strength by managing to keep himself in the field of play out on the right touchline. Substitute scrum-half Faf De Klerk recycled the ball to Marx, who did well to force his way over the white line. Jantjies added the extras to at least put the Lions in to double figures but still 15 points behind, trailing 25-10.
The Lions continued to fight, showing the never-say-die attitude that has become their trademark this season. After a series of big, powerful carries from their forwards and efficient, speedy recycling from De Klerk, Fourie bashed a defender out of the way to go in under the posts. Jantjies wasted no time in the conversion to cut the deficit to eight, meaning the home side would need more than a converted try with just five seven minutes to go which proved a bridge too far in the end.
LIONS – 17
Tries: Malcolm Marx (63), Corne Fourie (72)
Penalties: Elton Jantjies (27)
Cons: Elton Jantjies (64,72)
Red Card: Kwagga Smith (39)
CRUSADERS – 25
Tries:Jack Goodhue (12), Seta Tamanivalu (8), Kieran Read (43)
Penalties: Richie Mo’unga (41,52)
Cons: Richie Mo’unga (9,44)
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Ruan Ackermann, 7 Kwagga Smith, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Cyle Brink, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 23 Sylvian Mahuza
Crusaders: 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 (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 George Bridge
Date: Saturday, August 5
Venue: Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg
Kick-off: 16:00 local (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, Marius van der Westhuizen
TMO: Marius Jonker