JOHANNESBURG – The Crusaders are back in the Super Rugby final seeking a record-extending ninth title. The Lions are back still searching for a first.
New Zealand’s Crusaders and South Africa’s Lions set up a repeat of last year’s decider with convincing semifinal wins at home on Saturday.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders overwhelmed the Wellington-based Hurricanes 30-12 in a one-sided all-New Zealand match.
The Johannesburg-based Lions later beat Australia’s New South Wales Waratahs 44-26, matching the Crusaders’ 18-point winning margin.
A year ago, the Crusaders won the title in Johannesburg. Super Rugby’s most successful team will have the significant advantage of playing this season’s finale at home next Saturday.
The Crusaders have already won five more Super Rugby titles than any other team, have reached the final 13 times in the tournament’s 23 seasons — more than twice as many as anyone else — and have a supreme 20-0 record in playoff games at home.
The Lions were relegated from Super Rugby in 2012 before embarking on a stirring revival. They must pull off a titanic upset next weekend in Christchurch if they are to finally secure their first Super Rugby triumph after losing the last two finals.
“What a challenge,” Lions captain Warren Whiteley said. “We can’t wait.
“We know there’s a lot to work on. It’s going to be a big one. But to give yourself a chance . . . being in a final, that’s what it’s about.”
The Lions came back from 14-0 down after the Waratahs raced out of the blocks, spreading the ball wide to create tries for flanker Ned Hanigan and fullback Israel Folau in the first eight minutes.
The contest played true to most pre-match predictions: The Waratahs brought their outside backs into play as much as possible but ultimately couldn’t match the forward might, or the intensity, of the Lions.
Hooker Malcolm Marx was at the center of the Lions’ powerful scrum and rolling maul to score two tries. Flanker Kwagga Smith also had two tries, including the Lions’ first when he burst through two tacklers to begin the comeback midway through the first half.
Winger Aphiwe Dyantyi and his replacement, Courtnall Skosan, also scored, with Dyantyi’s 80-meter solo effort showing the Lions can produce thrilling as well as grinding tries.
The Waratahs matched the Lions’ three first-half tries when a lineout move saw prop Tom Robertson go in a minute from halftime and level the scores at 19-19. That raised hopes of a Waratahs upset.
The Lions shut down those hopes with a run of 18 unanswered points in the second half, taking advantage of a yellow card to replacement hooker Damien Fitzpatrick to score two of their three second-half tries.
“We have a chance,” Whiteley insisted, as he looked forward to what many will consider an impossible task — overcoming the Crusaders in their fortress.
“It is a massive opportunity for us,” said the back-row forward who was injured and missed late-season losses away to the Hurricanes and at home against the Crusaders because of injuries.
“Christchurch is a great place to go for a rugby match and we will be up against a great Crusaders team.”
In the earlier semifinal in Christchurch, the Crusaders maintained their seemingly unstoppable progress toward title No. 9 by dominating the Hurricanes, the 2016 champions, from the start.
In a match billed as the final before the final, with the conference format putting the top two teams from the regular season this year on the same side of the playoff draw, the Crusaders struck early and never fell behind.
Crusaders winger George Bridge scored his 15th try of the season, briefly equaling the season record, and the team also got tries from flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, fullback David Havili and replacement back Braydon Ennor.
The game was already decided, with the Crusaders up 30-7, when Hurricanes winger Ben Lam reclaimed the season try-scoring record at 16 — an all-time high — with the last move of the game.
The Crusaders opened an 18-7 lead at the break with tries by Bridge and Mo’unga, who also added a conversion and two penalties in the first half.
That made it imperative the Hurricanes score first in the second half. They had possession, but an error, a botched restart from the 22, gave the Crusaders the chance they needed to make the game safe.
Center Jack Goodhue made a long run back into the Hurricanes 22 and linked with All Blacks captain Kieran Read, who drove the ball toward the line. The Crusaders recycled possession, and scrumhalf Bryn Hall found Havili running into the line at pace to score the insurance try for 25-7.
Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said the team fed off the direction given by Mo’unga and a passionate defense.
“Richie’s done it all year. He’s pretty quick over those first couple of steps and is hard to keep up with.
“And defense reveals what the team means to you and the boys worked hard for each other.”
Hurricanes skipper Brad Shields, playing his last game before heading to England, said the turnover proved costly.
“You’ve got to build phases down the right end of the field and a couple of times we let them off the hook pretty easy and turned around and they scored pretty easy.”
Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said before the match that the result would be determined by the forwards and that’s how it turned out with the Crusaders turning on a merciless display.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5