Hard fact: Lions are far from second best in Super Rugby
The Lions lead the SA conference, but did they deserve a spot in the final? The facts don't back it up
After a third consecutive Super Rugby final loss the Lions will have some soul searching to do in the coming weeks and months because 2018 has been an underwhelming season for the Joburg union.
On the face of it, all is well at the franchise and there is nothing to suggest they won’t remain a force in South African rugby for the foreseeable future.
But that would be a mistake because the Lions, despite being the best team in SA, were some way off being the second-best team in the tournament. That’s not a popular opinion; results and numbers back it up.
After two seasons in 2016 and 2017 where the Lions were without question deserving of their place in the final, in 2018 they qualified for the showpiece thanks to the vagaries of the conference system.That is not their fault and they did enough under the rules to make the final, which ended in inevitable defeat against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Crusaders duly weathered the Lions’ expected early onslaught, using their smothering defence to gradually kill any hope the visitors felt before running away to a 37-18 win to secure their ninth title.
It feels as if the dynasty that the Lions have built at Ellis Park, if it could be called that after failing to win Super Rugby, is beginning to fracture.
There was lots of talk last week that the Lions deserved their place in the final, but the facts don’t back that up.
Yes, they won their quarterfinal and semifinal, but both of those matches were played at home. And the Lions only earned home play-off matches because of the tournament structure.
The Lions were the best team in the South African conference, which is not in dispute. But that doesn’t automatically make them one of the top two sides in the competition.
Swys de Bruin’s team lost seven games in the regular season, including all four against New Zealand opposition before meeting the Crusaders in the final. Out of 16 games, the Lions lost 44% of them and were still gifted a home semifinal.In 2016 and 2017 the Lions lost a total of five out of 30 regular season games for a winning ratio of 83%. This year they won only 56% of regular season matches. Making the final has masked an alarming decline in results.
Besides the Crusaders, the Hurricanes (5), Chiefs (5), Highlanders (6) and Waratahs (6) all lost fewer regular season games than the Lions.
When you consider New Zealand teams have a double round against their countrymen, they have the hardest draw in the tournament. Yet four of their five franchises were in the top five on the standings in terms of log points.If the standings were decided on pure log points the Crusaders (63), Hurricanes (51) and Chiefs (49) would have held the top three places. The Lions (46) were fourth-best thanks to their tremendous try-scoring ability, which yielded six bonus points, with the Highlanders fifth on 44 points.
After 21 straight wins against South African opponents, the Lions lost to the Sharks, which is another little warning light that their local dominance wasn’t as emphatic in 2018.
The Lions are also facing a player drain of epidemic proportions, which is going to make retaining their status as the best team in SA even more difficult in 2019.They have lost, and are about to lose, several key players to northern hemisphere clubs. Bok flank Jaco Kriel and centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg have already joined Gloucester and Sale respectively. Lock Franco Mostert, props Ruan Dreyer and Jacques van Rooyen and fullback Andries Coetzee are heading overseas too.
Between 2017 and 2018 the Lions also lost flank Ruan Ackermann, hooker Akker van der Merwe and scrumhalf Faf de Klerk, as well as head coach Johan Ackermann.
Players often state that the club has a great culture, but why are so many good players heading out the door then?
Applaud the Lions for making the final again, but don’t let it obscure the fact that 2018 was mediocre compared with the standards they set in the two seasons prior.