South African rugby reached crisis point in 2016 when the national team lost eight of their 12 tests, the worst season in their history, and a Lions victory on Saturday, especially against New Zealand opposition, would signal a much-needed revival in fortunes.
It is the second season in a row that the Johannesburg-based side have made the Super Rugby decider, but were toothless in their 20-3 defeat to the Hurricanes in Wellington in 2016 and so three-time winners the Bulls remain the only South African winners of the competition since 1996.
Saturday’s final is also a farewell for coach Johan Ackermann, who leaves for English side Gloucester after the competition, with a sell-out 62,000 crowd set for his send-off.
Both teams go into Saturday’s decider with 16-1 records in 2017, but home advantage for the Lions at the altitude of Ellis Park, even against a more pedigreed Crusaders side, could swing the game in their favour.
Ackermann has named an unchanged line-up from the team that has played throughout the knockout stages, with influential skipper Warren Whiteley still missing through injury.
“We can analyse the Crusaders as much as we want to, we know they are going to be physical. It is for us to be in their faces and to adapt if our plan doesn’t work,” Ackermann told reporters.
The Crusaders are also unchanged from their 27-13 semi-final win over the Waikato Chiefs last weekend, and have reported no ill-effects from their dash across the Indian Ocean.
“We’ve acclimatised well and we have a good history over here,” Crusaders coach Scott Robinson said. “We are a bit isolated here, which is good, we don’t get so much of the hype. We are well aware of what is ahead of us.
“We know the important areas of the game, defence is obviously critical. Refs obviously come into play, it’s a different level with a different intensity. We know we have to be smart. It’s an occasion for big players to step up.”
The Crusaders will be captained by lock Sam Whitelock, and also have New Zealand captain and number eight Kieran Read in their side as they seek a first Super Rugby victory since 2008.
“It’s been a long time … we’ve been to this big dance a few times before and haven’t performed,” Robinson said.
The last team to win a Super Rugby final played outside their country was in 2000 when the Crusaders beat the ACT Brumbies in Canberra.
(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Alison Williams)