Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Wellington? Well, you saw it yourself: typically
squally, wickedly strong gusts of winds both cross and straight, temperatures
that by all accounts didn’t crawl into double figures.
It was so miserable that several victorious Hurricanes
players afterwards looked as though hypothermia was about to set in as the
sweat dried uncomfortably on their bodies and they waited impatiently for the
obligatory, elongated official podium hoo-ha to be completed.
Johannesburg Saturday afternoon forecast? Unseasonal
spring-like warmth anticipated, with temperatures hitting 23 deg C in full sunshine,
appealingly benign breeze … good lung-puncture conditions, really, for a New
Zealand team potentially having had to make the gruelling trek across the
Indian Ocean to the Highveld, rather than the other way around.
Yes, that’s exactly the time of day in the Big Smoke that we
MIGHT have viewed an Emirates Airline Park final of Vodacom Super Rugby 2016,
had the knockout draw worked out that key inch more favourably for the Lions.
Cue very quickly the thoughts of master pundit Nick Mallett,
speaking in Saturday’s SuperSport post-mortem of events at Westpac Stadium:
“(The Lions) would have had a very good chance of winning at Ellis Park.”
Instead we have new, first-time ownership of the Super Rugby
title by the Hurricanes instead, as they played smarter rugby and also cashed
in royally on extraordinarily frequent errors by the otherwise game visitors to
prevail 20-3 in the hostile, faraway Cake Tin.
They say you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk, and at the
risk of laying on the clichés or metaphors a tad thick, I will invariably also be
branded Johnny Come Lately by some.
But allow me to protest on the latter score: I did warn even
as coach Johan Ackermann named his much-debated, overwhelmingly second-string
squad for the final ordinary-season fixture against the Jaguares in Buenos
Aires that the risk of frittering away coveted rights – and boy, these don’t
come around every day – to a home showpiece had suddenly increased
My immediate lament on Sport24 at the time was that the
Lions, simply by carefully choosing just a handful more “regulars” – perhaps
strongly based on personal game-times at that particular juncture? – would have
stood a better chance of banking the solitary log point they needed to tee up
an exclusively home-based run in the knockout section.
Instead a rookie XV agonisingly, narrowly failed to get
anything from the Argentinean date and from that very moment a door swung invitingly
open for some crafty Antipodean outfit – it ended up being a truly
thunderous-finishing ‘Canes – to nick that showpiece right.
All my instincts told me a few weeks ago that Ackermann,
otherwise so inspiringly progressive with his rugby formula for his troops, had
made a fatally conservative, overly protective decision by cocooning his whole
first team from the trip to South America.
There had been a chance, in so many respects, to go for a
kill; instead it was sacrificed, a la Gerrie Coetzee, old-timers will remember,
in two initial cracks at world heavyweight boxing titles when he had first John
Tate and then Mike Weaver on the ropes but in each instance faded frustratingly
to gallant runner-up in the bout.
If it’s any consolation, the Boksburg Bomber later got it
right for the belt, pole-axing Michael Dokes.
These Lions are good enough to do the same in Super Rugby --
quite feasibly even as swiftly as 2017, when they will have an easier
ordinary-season roster and also seem set to retain the vast majority of their
“The best is yet to come, and we will learn from this,” said
captain Warren Whiteley defiantly, even through the obvious mist of
disappointment in his eyes.
It would be off-side to “blame” Ackermann for his fine
team’s bridesmaid mantle in 2016: which of us, after all, confidently predicted
they would march all the way to the final? Or even the playoffs phase at all?
The man has done wonders; won many new and bagged back as
many lapsed fans in the once stubbornly dormant Gauteng rugby region and a bit
beyond, too, given the sparkling brand that marked their game right up to –
just sadly not into -- the closing day.
Also, there is no guarantee the Lions WOULD have secured a
home final with a slightly differently-shaped programme in the last eight.
We must also acknowledge that his charges played some of
their most champagne-like rugby of the whole campaign in the quarter-final and
semi-final against similar, high-quality New Zealand foes, suggesting that the
freshness banked from that week off by his senior soldiers did brings certain
tangible benefits, indeed.
But by “backing off”, if you like, into second spot overall
ahead of the knockouts, maybe the big fellow also under-estimated the killingly
burdensome weight of history, pointing so strongly to the fact that crossing
the ocean for the final at a flimsy week’s notice unfailingly takes you to a rigidly
Yet again, in such circumstances, we saw the losing side
pitch up for the showpiece with hearts willing, but timezone-teased minds and
bodies just not quite able to match.
We can only hope the Lions get another chance to go one step
further, to reach nirvana.
These opportunities don’t grow on trees.
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing