Super Rugby final preview: Crusaders vs. Lions; storylines, tips

A Super Rugby season full of controversy, debate, highs and lows comes to an end on Saturday night when the Crusaders and Lions face off in the decider for the second straight year.

As it stands, the Crusaders are unbackable favourites. Bookmakers tab.com.au have the Crusaders at $1.10, which is a worthy reflection on their exceptional season to date, and the fact the final will be played at their AMI Stadium fortress.

It would truly be one of the upsets of the decade if the Lions came to Christchurch and came away with the trophy.

Still, your essential reading awaits below.

Crusaders vs. Lions, AMI Stadium, Christchurch, 5.35pm (AEST), Saturday

The Crusaders' 2018 story

The Crusaders have long looked like champions this season. But there were a couple of minor hiccups at the start of the year in losses to the Highlanders and Hurricanes, both away from home, that perhaps gave their Super Rugby rivals hope they may not be the same team as the drought-breakers of 2017. Those thoughts are now a distant memory as the defending champions have rolled to a 14-game win streak, suffering only a few heart flutters along the way. The biggest of those was the 29-point headstart they gave the Waratahs in May, only for Scott Robertson's side to draw on all their resilience to surge back and complete a remarkable 31-29 victory. They are a helluva side, playing with an unimaginable confidence that comes from a squad perfectly in tune with itself.

The Lions' 2018 journey

It hasn't quite been vintage Lions compared to their previous two Super Rugby campaigns, and yet they were still the best South African team by some way and have managed to make their third successive Super Rugby final. The departure of coach Johan Ackermann seemed to hit them hard, and the conference system certainly played a part in making it easier for them to progress to the showpiece match. However, we know this Lions team can turn it on against any opposition. They certainly have found some form over the last few weeks, fighting back in their last three matches to make the final. The return of a few key players from injury has given them a massive boost since the end of the international break, and they will certainly give it good crack on Saturday.

Key positional battles

Codie Taylor vs. Malcolm Marx

There was a time when Dane Coles' horror run with injury and concussion was labelled a serious All Blacks issue, but such have been Codie Taylor's performances over the last 18 months that Coles, even with his Test naming this week, has shifted somewhat from memory. Taylor has been one of the cornerstones of the Crusaders' setup under Scott Robertson, his set-piece work as good as any while also offering a ball-carrying threat in the wider channels. He is arguably the second-best hooker in the game at the moment.

But that means there is one better, and it just happens to be Taylor's opposite number this weekend. Malcolm Marx has claims to being the best player of any position on the planet, such is the way he has taken the evolution of the hooker role Coles probably pioneered, and improved upon it considerably. Marx had more turnovers and forced penalties than any other player by the length of the straight this season, and crossed for 11 tries in the process. That is the same number as Israel Folau and good enough to be equal fourth of all comers. If the Lions are to be any sort of chance, Marx must again lead it. Taylor can't fight the battle all on his own either; the entire Crusaders pack will need to take turns shifting Marx off the ball.

Matt Todd vs. Kwagga Smith

Todd was voted the Crusaders' best player this year, which says a great deal about what sort of season the dependable openside has had for the defending champions. Todd isn't the flashiest of players, but he is one of the best breakdown scavengers on the planet. It's his graft in the dark places that helps the Crusaders' potent backline shine open space.

Smith hasn't had the best of campaigns after making the fulltime switch from sevens to the 15s this year. However, he has started to come to the party in the playoffs with two excellent performances against the Jaguares and the Waratahs. Smith has immense strength for his size, which helps his play at the breakdown. But he is also one of the top players with ball in hand, and tends to break tackles close to the line just as he did in shaking of Sekope Kepu and Tolu Latu for the Lions' opener last weekend.

How the Crusaders win it

The Crusaders won't stray from the supreme harmony that has been their game-plan all season, a setup that sees forwards and backs combine in a relentless rugby machine. But the Crusaders will have a focal point in defence, one that will be squarely focused on Elton Jantjies. The Lions fly-half has a tendency to drop deeper and deeper into the pocket when the pressure comes on; a result the Hurricanes achieved in the 2016 decider. If the Crusaders continue to own the breakdown, limiting the turnover threats of Malcolm Marx and Kwagga Smith, then Jantjies will have little choice but to kick away what possession the Lions do obtain. He struggles to play flat at the line and given the defensive pressure the Crusaders bring, that is a huge problem for the Lions.

How the Lions win it

The biggest problem for the Lions in playoff matches over the last three years has been their slow start; it cost them in the final against the Crusaders last year and also in 2016 against the Hurricanes. The Lions also need to limit their unforced errors, and make good decisions when they are under pressure. The Sharks felt the wrath of the Crusaders by going 13-0 down after 12 minutes, because of three mistakes. The Lions' pack needs to come to the party in a big way, and they have to back their maul. At the back, Jantjies needs to take charge of the final and marshal his team around the park.

Line-ups

Crusaders: David Havili; Seta Tamanivalu Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge; Richie Mo'unga, Bryn Hall; Kieran Read, Matt Todd, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis; Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett; Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Sam Anderson-Heather, Tim Perry, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.

Lions: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Courtnall Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley (c), Cyle Brink, Kwagga Smith, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Ruan Dreyer, Malcolm Marx, Jacques van Rooyen Reserves: Corne Fourie, Dylan Smith, Johannes Jonker, Lourens Erasmus, Marnus Schoeman, Dillon Smit, Aphiwe Dyantyi, Howard Mnisi

Verdict

Sam Bruce says: I didn't really think the Crusaders could improve on last year. But they have done just that, even if the records show two losses in 2018 as opposed to only one last year. Prepare yourselves for more of Robertson's sweet, sweet dance moves. Crusaders by 27.

John Goliath says: You can't see it happening, can you? No matter how patriotic a South African you are, it's difficult to see how the Lions will pull this one off. But this is what makes sport great. It's unscripted, and sometimes the underdog comes out on top. Lions to win by 3!