The best two teams in this season’s Super Rugby competition will square off in Wellington on Saturday as the Hurricanes and Lions collide.
Both sides have won 13 times this year and both are on a recent run of seven wins from their last eight games, although the ‘Canes are on seven straight triumphs which, along with home field advantage and a stingy defence, has seen them installed as the favourites to prevail.
Writing off the Lions would be foolish though as they have already accounted for the Crusaders and Highlanders in the knockout stages, so defeating the Hurricanes would make it a New Zealand one, two, three en route to glory. What an achievement that would be for this union.
It’s been quite some turnaround under coach Johan Ackermann. In 2012 the Lions were relegated from Super Rugby after finishing 15th. They returned in 2014 with a 12th-placed finish before we began to see the fruits of Ackermann’s labours. Getting to a Currie Cup final in 2014 was followed by a rise to eighth in Super Rugby last season before they went one better and won South Africa’s club competition last year.
That Currie Cup win will no doubt stand them in good stead as, like the Hurricanes in Super Rugby 2015, they have finals experience. They also have their tails up thanks to scoring a total of ten tries in their quarter and semi-final, so they are fresh and full of confidence.
Should they be playing this final in Johannesburg has been a question many have asked ever since Ackermann opted to rest his XV for their trip to the Jaguares. But who is to say whether a weary Lions team would have been able to perform like they did in the knockouts if they had that extra flight in their legs. They arrive in Wellington confident in what may well prove to have been a masterstroke from the boss.
It’s been home field advantage all the way for the Hurricanes then after finishing top of the regular-season standings. After a sluggish start against the Brumbies and Highlanders, they have gone from strength to strength this season and are on the verge of claiming a first Super Rugby title and a team record eighth straight win. They will, however, hope memories of last season’s final loss do not haunt them.
In the hosts’ favour is the fact they’ve won nine of their 10 meetings with the Lions in Super Rugby, including each of their last seven. They also have arguably the form player in the game at the moment, Beauden Barrett, wreaking havoc from fly-half, with his dismantling of the Chiefs last week an incredible performance. If he fires, it’s going to take something extra special for the Lions to lift the trophy.
But the Lions have proved time and again they should not be discounted, and the manner in which they bullied the Highlanders with a brand of power front and direct yet classy back play starring Elton Jantjies and Rohan Janse van Rensburg will no doubt have the ‘Canes on edge.
The pressure is on to be crowned the best of 2016 and finding out who deals with it better is going to be fascinating viewing. Finals can do strange things to players and with Super Rugby’s best defence hosting the strongest attack, something has to give at a sold-out Westpac Stadium.
The last time the teams met: It was a 50-17 victory for the Hurricanes in Johannesburg but the scoreline did not reflect how the Round 10 game played out. The ‘Canes led 36-5 in a dominant first half but two of their tries came from intercepts. The Lions rallied early in the second period with tries from Lionel Mapoe and Jaco Kriel, but Vince Aso and Julian Savea then dotted down to wrap up a healthy away win.
Players to watch: The man on fire at the moment, Beauden Barrett, will hope to continue his recent form on Saturday as he looks to bring the Hurricanes their first Super Rugby title. There’s no doubting how important he is to this ‘Canes team and another classy showing like the one against the Chiefs will do nicely for Chris Boyd. Ardie Savea’s form against a tough Lions pack will also be vital to their hopes.
The form front row in Super Rugby meanwhile simply must continue to apply the squeeze this week if the Lions are to be crowned champions. Dylan Smith, Malcolm Marx and Julian Redelinghuys have been brilliant in 2016, leading to calls for Marx in particular to get a Bok call. Few would disagree that he’s been South Africa’s best hooker this year and the same can be said of inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg.
Team news: Hurricanes captain Dane Coles has once again been bracketed in the team. If he’s fit to feature he would be the only potential change to the team that started the semi-final win over the Chiefs at the same venue last weekend. Openside Callum Gibbins, who missed the semi-final win with an Achilles injury, has been bracketed with Tony Lamborn, while prop Reggie Goodes is also bracketed with Mike Kainga.
Warren Whiteley returns to the Lions starting XV while Ruan Ackermann and Lourens Erasmus have been included on the bench, together with Ross Cronjé, who takes the place of Dillon Smit as scrum-half cover for Faf de Klerk. Otherwise it’s an unchanged squad from last weekend.
Form: The Hurricanes have lost just one of their last eight games but they are on a seven-game streak at the moment and remarkably haven’t conceded a try in their last two and a half games. It is not just defensively they are on song as in those seven wins they have scored 29 tries, an average over four per game. Their last defeat came against South African opposition, when the Sharks won 32-15 in Durban in May.
The Lions have also lost just once in their last eight and that was against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires when they rested their entire XV. Wins against the Blues, Jaguares (home), Bulls, Sharks, Kings, Crusaders and Highlanders has given them huge confidence as they set about making it three straight victories against New Zealand opposition. In those seven triumphs the Lions have averaged over six tries per game.
Prediction: While this powerful Lions machine is going to be extremely tough to stop, the hosts will do enough, just. Hurricanes by three.