Christchurch beckons Lions, but history's not on their side
They face a daunting task if they get past the Waratahs and have to make the energy-sapping trek to Crusader territory for the Super Rugby final
Achieving away victories is tough enough in a competition played across 16 time zones. Achieving them in play-off matches against opponents who more often than not have enjoyed more success in the league stages of the competition, is simply daunting.
It is particularly pertinent to the Lions who, should they win at home against the Waratahs on Saturday, and the Crusaders do the same against the Hurricanes, will have to fly to Christchurch for the final.
Travel fatigue, jet lag and acclimatisation are factors teams have to take into consideration when they embark on a journey across several times zones.
That perhaps explains why in the 13 matches South African teams have played in New Zealand in the play-offs, they are without a win. The Sharks produced the most recent evidence that it is perhaps a fruitless exercise. In fact, their defeat to the Crusaders last Saturday was their seventh in play-off games in New Zealand.Flying from Johannesburg to Christchurch without factoring in the layover in Sydney, or potential delays, takes just under 15 hours.
To be fair, Australian sides have found it as difficult as teams from SA. No New Zealand team has lost a Super Rugby final against a team that has had to cross the Tasman Sea.
The record shows that travelling between SA and New Zealand and vice versa for a final requires a number of factors to align in your favour. The Crusaders arrived in Johannesburg in 2017 steeled with great pedigree and they backed it up with a marvelously gutsy and disciplined display against a Lions team who saw Kwagga Smith sent off in the first half. Nonetheless, it was a win that required a monumental effort from the visitors.
The eight-time champions have been unremitting when hosting Super Rugby finals. The Crusaders have won all four finals they’ve hosted, but even more impressive, they won four finals away from home.
Should the Lions and the Crusaders win their semifinals next weekend the former will again face the prospect of again flying to New Zealand for the competition’s climax. They did so two years ago and came unstuck against a Hurricanes team far more attuned to the driving rain and the capricious influence of what the locals ironically refer to as the zephyr.The Lions have, however, improved as a team on the road. When, over the past few seasons they have been required to fly east, their form has largely been solid. In fact, by the time they played the Reds in Brisbane earlier this year they boasted eight wins from 10 league matches in Australasia and Japan. They had just beaten the Waratahs 29-0 by duping their bodies, or at least body clock, by operating on South African time while in Sydney.
But they operated on Eastern Standard Time once they reached Brisbane and duly lost their next three matches against the Reds, Hurricanes and Highlanders.
Still, they enjoy touring which is made easier by the often stated brotherhood that exists in their camp.The Crusaders defied history in 2017, but it is probably going to be a much bigger effort the rewrite history in New Zealand.
Of the 22 Super Rugby finals to date, 13 have been played on New Zealand soil. No overseas team has won a final there.
The Brumbies three times, the Sharks and Waratahs twice and the Lions once, have all failed at the final hurdle on Kiwi soil.That is not to say all New Zealand teams have won finals they’ve hosted. The Crusaders beat the Blues in 1998 and the Highlanders in 1999, while the Hurricanes lost at home to the Highlanders in 2015.
The Crusaders have also won finals in Canberra in 2000 and Johannesburg in 2017, while the Bulls also achieved an away win in the final when they dramatically denied the Sharks in 2007.
Clearly, the Lions will have their work cut out against a team who don’t just boast fine pedigree, but perhaps forebodingly, are unbeaten at home this season.