Down by 22 points, the Lions were in need of another Get out of Jail free card, but against a side as clinical as the Crusaders, the Red card shown to Kwagga Smith trumped all cards.
In a red card game, that is normally the only stat that counts, with the rest of the match stats then being a function of the game changing incident. And so it came to be in the 2017 Vodacom Super Rugby final that saw the Crusaders become the first side to ever cross the Indian Ocean and win an away final.
That said, prior to Kwagga Smith’s 38th minute red card, the visitors had scored twice to find themselves 3-12 up, and had missed out on two opportunities to score further tries. The Lions were already on the ropes.
Sure they had come back from 3-22 down the week before against the Hurricanes to win the game, but against a side as efficient and clinical as the Crusaders, especially defensively, making use of another Get out of Jail free card seemed unlikely.
And with only 14 men on the park, impossible.
Especially with a set piece that was not at full steam. Tighthead prop Ruan Dreyer was getting mangled in the scrum and in the process gave away 4 scrum penalties.
The home side also coughed up 3 lineouts, with the two that came in 58th and 61st minutes, while deep in the Crusaders half, no doubt having the effect of an Evander Holyfield haymakers.
Together with an amazing set piece, the visitors were also forced into making 217 tackles, close on 100 more than the Lions, who kept ball in hand as they chased the game. And while they missed 39 of them for an ordinary 83% tackle success rate, they not only made the key ones, but made them properly, delivering 20 dominant tackles to the 8 of the Lions.
I’ve called them the “Scrum and smother” side all season, in reference to their amazing game management via a commitment to the basics of the game, and on Saturday, their game plan again did the business for the Crusaders.
To the victors, the spoils. And deservedly so.
The Lions never went away, though, showing yet again the courage and heart they have shown all season. At one stage it was looking as if they might concede 30 or 40 points.
As Nick Mallett said after the game, “Huge credit to them for hanging in there, holding on to the ball and playing with a lot of heart and determination to get those couple of tries to bring it back to an eight-point game at the end. The Lions did unbelievably well to get as close as they did.”
Oh what might have been …
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