Hurricanes v Lions
Despite changes to the format, for the 15th time in 21 seasons the Super Rugby final will be contested by the teams ranked 1st and 2nd in the regular season.
With the exception of the Crusaders (4th in 1999, but only 3 points difference with 1st place), the final winners in this competition have all been top two sides.
The biggest league points difference between winner and runner-up is 13 points – Crusaders (51 points) over Brumbies (38) in 2002 and Highlanders (53) over Hurricanes (66) last year.
Just 1 league point separated the Hurricanes and Lions this season, making this the second final contested by such a gap, after Bulls v Chiefs in 2009.
As with that 2009 contest, this final involves teams from New Zealand and South Africa. The average winning margin in the 7 finals featuring teams from the same country is 5.6 points. The 9 games between New Zealand and Australia teams have an average of 8.1 points. The 3 previous finals involving a team having to make a trip across the Indian Ocean that week saw margins of 30 points – Brumbies v Sharks 2001, 44 points – Bulls v Chiefs 1999 and 31 points – Chiefs v Sharks 2012. The Blues also beat the Sharks by 24 points in 1996, though the visitors had an away game in Brisbane the week before rather than having to travel from Durban.
Teams finishing 1st have a combined record of 160 wins from 175 (regular season and knockout) home games at an average score of 34-19 and 18/22 wins against 2nd placed teams by an average score of 34-18. New Zealand 1st ranked teams have won 79/85 home matches by an average score of 36-19 and 48/50 when excluding matches against fellow Kiwi teams – by an average score of 40-18.
There have been examples of a team winning the title after recent lowly league finishes – Chiefs were 11th in 2010 and won the 2012 final, Waratahs 11th in 2012 and won the 2014 final and Highlanders 12th in 2014 and last year’s winners. The Lions won just 17 of 84 games from 2007-2012, a period that contained 17 and 11 match losing streaks. They were relegated from the competition at the end of the 2012 campaign and replaced by the Kings.
That relegation prompted a number of players to leave, including Jacobie Adriaanse, Pat Cilliers, Ruan Botha, Paul Willemse, Grant Hattingh, Michael Rhodes, Josh Strauss, Butch James and Jaco Taute. Others such as Franco van der Merwe, Derick Minnie, Elton Jantjies, Andries Coetzee and Lionel Mapoe went on loan. MTN ended their partnership with the Golden Lions Rugby Union in 2013, a significant blow given that deal was supposed to herald a new start after previous problems with potential equity partners Guma-Tac. Coach John Mitchell left at the end of 2012 after a fall out with the players.
That all meant that forwards coach Johan Ackermann was promoted in difficult circumstances. Swys de Bruin was appointed as an assistant for the 2013 season while defence coach JP Ferreira started with the team in 2007. Conditioning coach Ivan van Rooyen was also retained from the Mitchell era.
Under Ackermann the team has improved each season, with 7 wins in 2014, 9 in 2015 and 13 so far this year. It has been a similar pattern in the Currie Cup, with 4 victories and a semi-final defeat in 2013, 7 wins and a final loss in 2014 and a perfect season and final win in 2015. The Bulls won 3 Super Rugby titles and the Blue Bulls 2 Currie Cups with former Leopards hooker Jannie Putter as mental coach and he has been working with the Lions recently.
The Lions had the best attack in the regular season in 2016, scoring the most points and tries, beating the most defenders and carrying for the most metres. The team with the top attack has won 14 of the previous 20 tournaments.
Below is the Lions average match stats for 2016 (including knockout games) compared with the Hurricanes.
(Vodacom Rugby app)
It has been noticeable that while the Lions have retained traditional South African elements such as a powerful scrum, they’ve also placed a great emphasis on fitness and attacking in a style reminiscent of New Zealand sides. They have the ability and willingness to win quick ruck ball, offload, score tries from turnovers and score from long-range.
On their way to the final, Lions avenged earlier losses against the Crusaders and Highlanders. They’ll have to continue that trend if they are to win the trophy – against a team that beat them 50-17 at home in April.
The visitors have named settled combinations throughout the season, with the impressive frontrow of Dylan Smith, Malcolm Marx and Julian Redelinghuys starting 11 previous games together. At lock Andries Ferreira and Franco Mostert have 14 previous starts while the preferred backrow of Jaco Kriel, Warwick Tecklenburg and Warren Whiteley have made 10 previous starts.
Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies had 12 starts together this year before this game while the centre pairing of the bulldozing Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Lionel Mapoe had 8. The back 3 of Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck and Andries Coetzee also started 8 games as a unit.
Lions have started an average of 12 of their final XV throughout the season, or 12.7 if the Jaguares away match is ignored. The losses against the Highlanders and Hurricanes saw 10 and 11 of the final XV starting with Marx and Redelinghuys absent both times. They won 11 of the 12 games with 12 or more Final XV starters, by an average score of 39-21.
While Ackermann has said that ‘finals are meant to be 50-50’, his side are up against travel, home advantage, historical trends such as South African teams losing all 11 former knockout games in New Zealand by an average margin of 24 points, their record against the Canes, the hosts recent form of 16 wins from 19 home games since 2015 etc.
That does mean his decision to rest his first choice XV for the Jaguares trip in the final round will come under scrutiny. Ackermann mentioned the squad and particularly the new Springboks were mentally tired after the June games. Having to talked to fellow SA coaches he was also concerned about the effects of travel or picking up illnesses (Sharks and Stormers both reported flu after that trip).
On that basis it was a reasonable decision to rest at least some players and while his first choice team would have been favourites to win in Argentina, it wasn’t an impossibility that they have been more focussed on the upcoming knockout games or lacking their usual intensity after a game against the Kings and knowing they were already in the playoffs. It also meant they were rested for the knockout games and against teams that had to travel from Australasia. If they had won the league, they’d have faced teams that didn’t have to travel so far in the Sharks and then likely the Chiefs (who would have already been in South Africa after the Stormers game).
The loss in Buenos Aires did give one of the New Zealand teams an opportunity to take first place though and the Hurricanes were the side to benefit, with a 35-10 win away at the Crusaders. That was the only round they topped the table – a contrast with last season when Chris Boyd’s team led from round 6 and finished 13 points clear of the Highlanders.
The Canes’players and coaches stated the importance of preparation before the quarter-final and highlighted the round 10 loss at the Sharks as an example of when they got that wrong. That match and the standing down of players after a minor curfew breach might be seen as a turning point of the campaign. Since, the Hurricanes have won 7 games in a row by an average score of 32-14.
Keeping a Chiefs team that had scored 60 points the week before, to just 9 points was a great achievement in the semi-final but as notable was the fact they did so with just 5 of the starters from last year’s final. On paper a tight five of Loni Uhila , Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May, Vaea Fifita and Michael Fatialofa would compare unfavourably to Reg Goodes, Dane Coles, Ben Franks, Jeremy Thrush and James Broadhurst but one of the trends this year has been lesser known players making a mark.
With Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Ray Lee-lo gone there has been some experimentation in the midfield this season– Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape started the opening 4 matches, Laumape and Willis Halaholo the next 2 and then a combo of Aso and Matt Proctor started 6 of the next 7 games. The playoff centre pairing has been Halaholo and Proctor. An injury to Nehe Milner-Skudder and a drop in form for Julian Savea has also resulted in more game time for Jason Woodward on the wing.
There has been stability in the halfback and backrow units, with the in-form duo of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett starting all 17 games together and Brad Shields, Ardie Savea and Victor Vito 14 games. Since round 7, the mobile lock combo of Vaea Fifita and Michael Fatialofa have also started 10 of 12 games together.
Ardie Savea was the non-playing All Blacks ‘apprentice’ on their 2013 tour while Barrett’s versatility has seen him assume the role of ‘impact sub’ for 30 of his 39 Tests. They are now pushing rivals like Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden for starting spots for New Zealand and strong performances in knockout contests such as these can only help. Savea was top tackler for his team last week with 16 (0 missed) and also carried for 73m, beating 6 defenders. Below is the average 80 minute performance over the previous 2 seasons for Savea and Lions flanker Jaco Kriel (via Vodacom App).
As has often been the case in recent Super Rugby knockout games, there won’t be a neutral referee. Ignoring games between teams from the same country, it has happened in 20 of 29 playoff matches since 2009.
There has been an average of 46.4 points in Glen Jackson’s 53 Super Rugby games since 2011 and a home win rate of 62%. The higher ranked (based on end of season table points) team has won 75% of games. This season it is an average of 50.9 points, 82% home win rate and higher ranked team winning 55%. He was in charge for the Hurricanes semi-final win over the Brumbies last year and their quarter-final victory against the Sharks this season.
When the teams met earlier in the year, despite having 64% possession and 66% territory the Lions carried for 383m, made 6 clean breaks and 7 offloads compared to their season average of 545m, 13 clean breaks and 11 offloads. They were also kept to 17 points. The Hurricanes aggressive rush frustrated the Lions that match and has proved effective in recent games, with opponents forced into making errors – be that mistimed passes, inaccurate chips being punished or intercepts.
Highlanders (v Crusaders, final) 1999, Sharks (v Brumbies, final) 2001, Crusaders (v Reds, final) 2011, Sharks (v Chiefs, final) 2012, Brumbies (v Chiefs, final) 2013, Sharks (v Crusaders, semi-final) 2014, Brumbies (v Hurricanes, semi-final) 2015 and Chiefs (v Hurricanes, semi-final) 2016 are all examples of a team winning a knockout match in South Africa and then losing the next game after travelling. Each of those teams were outscored 2nd half – by margins of 10,30, 6,21,12,22,11 and 7 points respectively.
In total, South African teams have a record of 3 wins from 18 away knockout matches when having to make that long flight the same week, with an average score of 32-16. In 1996, the Sharks won away in Brisbane in a semi-final however it can be noted that the Reds had also flown back from Johannesburg for the match. In 2012, the Sharks beat the Reds away and then Stormers away the following week.
New Zealand teams have won 34 of their 37 home knockout matches by an average score of 31-16, with the 3 losses coming against rival Kiwi opposition (including Highlanders losing after flying back from Cape Town in 1999). Against South African and Australian opposition it is 21 wins from 21 games by an average score of 34-15 and just South African 11 from 11 at 39-15. The Sharks in 1998 have been the only South African team with a losing margin of under 10 points in an away play-off match in New Zealand and in that instance, they and the Crusaders had both travelled from Durban the week before.
There have been 13 knockout matches with a New Zealand hosting an opponent that needed to travel across the Indian Ocean the same week. It is 13/13 home wins by an average score of 36-14 in those games and 33-9 when looking at the 8 matches in the conference era (since 2011). That includes recent Hurricanes home wins of 29-9 v Brumbies last year and 41-0 v Sharks and 25-9 v Chiefs this year.
In their previous 5 games, Hurricanes have won the 2nd half by 20-3, 17-7, 21-0, 28-0 and 10-3. There is the consideration that in likely wet conditions a dominant Lions scrum could prove a significant factor, but prefer to stick with the trend of the visiting team fading 2nd half in scenarios such as this.
Hurricanes -3 on 2nd half handicap
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Loni Uhila
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga/Reggie Goodes, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins/Tony Lambourn, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Courtnal Skosan, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf De Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Dylan Smith
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Ruan Ackermann, 21 Ross Cronjé, 22 Howard Mnisi, 23 Jaco van der Walt