WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Swys de Bruin’s Lions have been given what many consider to be a ‘Mission Impossible’ in Saturday’s Super Rugby final against the Canterbury Crusaders but are more than happy to accept it.
The Lions after all have been South Africa’s best side in Super Rugby for the past three years, courtesy of a mobile and aggressive pack and an electric backline keen to attack from anywhere on the field.
At Rugby League Park on Saturday (kickoff 0735 GMT), however, they face a Crusaders side hosting their first final in 10 years and seeking their ninth title.
They are also filled with All Blacks forwards and fuelled by flyhalf Richie Mo’unga’s growing maturity that has him pushing for more than a bit part in the national side.
“Along with the All Blacks in world rugby they have really stood tall,” Lions captain Warren Whiteley told reporters in Christchurch on Thursday when asked about the magnitude of the challenge.
“They’re a team everyone has learned from. (We’re) playing against the side that’s the best in the world.
“If you look at their results over the last couple of weeks and how they’ve constantly improved this is why you play the game for opportunities like this.”
Lions coach de Bruin recognised the challenge and decided to stick with most of the side who propelled them to their third successive final after they overwhelmed the New South Wales Waratahs last week and made just two changes.
The coach was obviously confident that leaders like Whiteley, hooker Malcolm Marx, flanker Kwagga Smith and lock Franco Mostert can provide the type of front-foot ball that flyhalf Elton Jantjies needs to keep his backline moving.
While Jantjies has been publicly backed by de Bruin in the last week, the 28-year-old does have a tendency to self-destruct when put under pressure, something the Crusaders have proven to be acutely adept at placing on their opposition in recent weeks.
The Crusaders, who are unbeaten in 20 playoff matches in Christchurch, stifled the creative All Blacks duo of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett last week in their 30-12 semi-final victory over the Wellington Hurricanes.
That performance followed big wins against the Otago Highlanders (45-22) and Sharks (40-10), whose margin of defeat did not reflect how well the have played and few have given the Lions much chance of upsetting the home side.
“There will be no miracle win for the Lions in Christchurch,” South African rugby journalist Mark Keohane wrote for Sport 24. “They’ll lose by 20 points – and it’s not because they’re a poor side.
“It’s about dealing in realism.”