There's still pressure on the Lions
Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Cape Town - History is there to be made, and judging from his comments after his team’s excellent win over the Highlanders in their Vodacom Super Rugby semifinal at the weekend, that is what Emirates Lions coach Johan Ackermann will be telling his team as they head to New Zealand for the final.
The Lions are indeed 80 minutes from glory, and Ackermann is right to say that the score will be 0-0 at the start of the Wellington decider. He may be wrong though to suggest all the pressure is on the Hurricanes because they are at home. For if the Lions lose, people with any kind of memory will be quick to remind Ackermann that he needn't have travelled for the decider.
It is true the hosts will be under pressure for they hosted a final last year and lost, and they will start qualifying for that dreaded chokers tag if they fail again in a home decider.
The Lions’ task might also be just a tad easier than the Sharks’ was when they travelled to the same Westpac Stadium venue for their quarterfinal two weeks ago because they did leave as soon as possible after their game.
The Lions were already in the air space above the Indian Ocean en route to New Zealand on Sunday night, whereas poor Sanzaar logistical planning condemned the Sharks to fly out on the Tuesday night.
Yet it will still be a massive ask for the Lions as they have to do what no South African team has done before them in order to win the title – namely win a play-off match in New Zealand - and the recent results have underlined just how important the travel factor is in a Super Rugby knock-out fixture.
Of the six play-off matches played so far, all of them have gone according to the predictions. The only away wins have been recorded by teams that were expected to win because they were significantly superior to their opponents.
The Chiefs were brilliant against the Stormers at Newlands in their quarter-final but produced an unacceptably high error rate after having to travel back across the sea, from east to west, to play the Hurricanes in the Wellington semi-final. And the Highlanders, who travelled to South Africa and Argentina in the weeks before the end of the league phase, have looked travel weary since their league decider against the Chiefs in Dunedin.
That was their big game immediately after their tour, and they threw everything into winning it. Victory would have enabled them to play most of the rest of the competition at home. Unfortunately for them, while they did win, the Hurricanes grabbed an unexpected bonus point in winning in Christchurch and pipped them to the Kiwi conference title. Since that win over the Chiefs, the Highlanders haven’t been the same team and were fortunate to beat the Brumbies in the quarter-final phase.
So Ackermann is right in saying that his team should be under less pressure than the Hurricanes. History strongly favours the home side. Yet that should be the very reason that there is pressure on the Lions, for Ackermann would not have lost sight of how different it could have been. Had he not sent a completely second string side to Buenos Aires for the last league game, the Lions may well have banked the extra point they needed for the final to be played in Johannesburg, which would have seen the Lions start as favourites in the decider.
The Hurricanes did win their league game against the Lions at Emirates Airlines Park with a one-sided scoreline, but the Lions have grown since that defeat. The Hurricanes have too, but there is a reason why only one overseas team – Jake White’s Brumbies – has travelled to altitude to win a play-off fixture.
Of course, Ackermann knows the condition of his players better than anyone. He would have made his decision to go under strength to Argentina based on that, and it will be hard to win an argument against him if he suggests that had the full strength squad flown to Buenos Aires, they may not have won the subsequent fixtures. It may well be that resting the players in the last week of league competition was the masterstroke that enabled the Lions to go further than they’ve ever gone before in Super Rugby in the professional age.
It has though left his team with a much more difficult task now. While not impossible, a Lions win will be the unexpected.
That said, the Hurricanes will have to work hard this week to play down the complacency that could be the legacy of their easy win over the Lions on the last day of April. The Lions have two things that make any professional sporting team extremely dangerous – confidence and x-factor. The latter they have across the board, the former they have built up during an impressive run that has seen their full strength team become near unstoppable.
They are good enough to give the Hurricanes a competitive final, and maybe even win it, if the Hurricanes are off their game.
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