It would have seen them go from being relegated at the expense of the Kings in 2013 to do the unthinkable three years later. But as nice a script this would have been, the reality is that the Super Rugby title isn’t something open to a smash-and-grab job. It isn’t referred to as the world’s toughest rugby competition for nothing, one that the Hurricanes took all of two decades to win for the first time.
If you put things into perspective, the mere fact that the Lions ventured two hurdles further than any other South African franchise this year is pretty amazing, even though a 20-3 loss in the final in the history books won’t seem that great a decade from now. But if you analyse the Lions side closely, you realise how far above their weight they punched to earn those silver medals in Wellington.
Not only did the majority of the Hurricanes team that played in the final feature in the competition’s showpiece match 12 months ago, but five of them were also part of the All Blacks’ World Cup-winning squad. It shows you that these guys have been around the block with plenty of experience in not only Super Rugby playoff matches, but also international rugby proper.
Not one player in the Lions team that featured in Wellington had played in a Super Rugby playoff match before this season and get this – not a single one was selected in the Springbok World Cup squad. Yes, all of nine have forced their way into the Bok squad this year, but the majority of these nine players’ international experience is still very much limited to one home series against Ireland.
The Bulls team that broke Mzansi’s duck in the competition in 2007 – and are still the only local team to win Super Rugby – didn’t happen overnight. The bulk of their players lost in the semifinals in 2005 and 2006 and featured in many Tri-Nations campaigns for the Springboks. When they beat the Sharks in Durban they were already battle-hardened soldiers.
In 2009 and 2010 even more so. By then their generals like Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez had the World Cup and multiple Tri-Nations titles on their CVs. The current Lions crop is in many ways still a work in progress and the play-off experience and introduction to international rugby this year will only make them stronger in future Super Rugby ventures, a competition they will start next year as a genuine heavyweight contender. But the post-mortem of the Lions’ campaign can’t be written without mentioning their decision to send a B team to Argentina, which effectively robbed them of a home final.
There was of course no guarantee they would have beaten the Hurricanes at home, taking into account the hiding they got from them in their beloved den earlier in the season and the fact that the Canes didn’t concede a single try in three playoff matches.
Would the Lions have even had the steam to reach the final if the players hadn’t got their much-needed rest on the much-debated weekend of the Jaguares fixture? But you could also argue that the weather in Johannesburg was perfect and should have suited the Lions’ expansive game plan they executed so perfectly against Kiwi opposition on the very same turf on the previous two Saturdays.
And they would have had a fanatical capacity crowd behind them with the Canes having had to make the arduous journey across the Indian Ocean. Maybe they could have actually burgled the trophy out of thin air. Too bad hindsight is an exact science.