Home advantage should help the Crusaders win their Super Rugby semi-final against the Chiefs on Saturday, but I doubt it will give the Lions the edge they hope for against the visiting Hurricanes in Johannesburg on Sunday.
When it came down to the nitty gritty on a rain-soaked Christchurch turf last weekend the Crusaders forward pack, with seven starting All Blacks, carried too much for the brave but outgunned Highlanders with a 17-0 victory.
Although the Crusaders were kept scoreless in the second half, their tight defence and the slow track bogged down the attacking threat posed by champion Highlander game-breakers Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo.
That could also be the fate of Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie and James Lowe this Saturday night unless Brodie Retallick and Ben Cane can inspire the Chiefs forwards to achieve something close to parity against the Crusaders mean machine.
Owen Franks and Joe Moody don’t rate as champion ball carrying props, but they are tremendous scrummagers and stout tacklers who never shirk the hard yakka.
As a leader who has taken over from All Black Kieran Read as captain of the Crusaders, gifted lock Sam Whitelock has performed tremendously well.
With Ryan Crotty and Isaac Luke the experienced hands of the backline, the development of young Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhew, George Bridges and David Havili has been a revelation.
But with Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Cruden, Lowe and highly regarded coach Dave Rennie accepting lucrative offers to move overseas, the Chiefs are eager to give them the perfect farewell.
Certainly they are better than their 17-11 quarter-final result against the Stormers suggests. However that long flight home from Cape Town and a heavy track could take its toll against a resolute Crusaders outfit who take no prisoners.
Much as I admire the Lions break away from South Africa’s traditional power game to embrace 15-man rugby, it will be a tragedy if they win this year’s championship.
The reason is they have made the semi-finals without facing one New Zealand team.
Furthermore, they can count themselves lucky to have got there after Sharks fullback Lwazi Mvovo gifted them their quarter-final when his blatant offside in the dying minutes allowed Ryan Combrinck to convert a magnificent 55m penalty for a narrow 23-21 victory.
A minute earlier fullback Mvovo was caught in possession when trying to run the ball when a kick deep into the Lions 22 would have earned his team an upset win on the back of a strong forward performance.
The Lions are better than that. But they face a much more dangerous backline in a Hurricanes side that boasts All Blacks TJ Perenara, the Barrett brothers, Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Interestingly it was non-All Black right wing Wes Goosen with his two tries, the first of which was a glorious sidestepping burst past three defenders, who was the star performer in the team’s 35-16 away win against the Brumbies.
That Goosen can keep 2011 World Cup star Cory Jane out of the starting 15 says much for coach Chris Boyd’s faith in him.
And with Vince Aso available for next Sunday’s clash after scoring 14 tries before being sidelined with injury, the Lions defence will need to be on full alert against a team that is capable of much better than it showed against the Brumbies.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author