The Lions are preparing for what they admit is the toughest challenge in Super Rugby by staying up late and sleeping in. They also say they are blessed to be playing the Crusaders in Christchurch and that it is an honour to be here.

On the face of it that strategy and attitude doesn't sound like a winner, but the men from Johannesburg have arrived in the south for their third consecutive final with a quiet confidence.

They respect hugely what is in effect an All Blacks team in disguise but are determined to put lessons learned into practice on Saturday. For a team – a brotherhood, they say have achieved a huge amount in a short time. But a grand final win still escapes them.

To inflict a first ever home finals defeat on the Crusaders would be the rugby upset of the year, but expectations are so low here and at home that they really do have nothing to lose.


The late nights and sleep-ins is a strategy to combat jetlag which they have used before – most recently before the round-robin game against the Waratahs in Sydney. And the respect talked about after coach Swys de Bruin announced his side isn't contrived; rather, it is truly felt and nothing other than a full-octane performance against the defending champions would do that justice, they feel.

Coach de Bruin has made two changes to the line-up which beat the Waratahs in the semifinal at Ellis Park last weekend – flanker Cyle Brink replacing Lourens Erasmus in the No7 jersey and Courtnall Skosan starting on the left wing ahead of Aphiwe Dyantyi. That sense of continuity is appropriate for a team who seem to thrive on it.

"They're a very good team and they deserve to be in first place, so congratulations to them," de Bruin said today of the Crusaders at his team's inner city hotel. "We'll have to bring our A-game and more. Apart from that we have a huge respect for them and what they stand for and how they play. It will be an honour for us to play against them."

Last weekend, after the Crusaders comfortably won their semifinal, Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd said Scott Robertson's men were 20 points better than any other in the competition, and that's about right as far as de Bruin is concerned. But he was right himself when he said this is a one-off game and anything can happen.

Andries Coetzee of the Lions. Photo / Getty
Andries Coetzee of the Lions. Photo / Getty

The charm offensive continued. Lions skipper and No8 Warren Whiteley, a man who missed last year's final defeat to the Crusaders in Johannesburg, has a fair idea what to expect against his opposite Kieran Read; the All Blacks captain near back at his best after recovering from back surgery.

"We have a huge respect for the Crusaders and what they stand for," Whiteley said. "Along with the All Blacks in world rugby they have really stood tall. They're a team everyone has learned from. This is a great opportunity for us and we're extremely excited.

Whiteley said of Read: "A phenomenal player. The world's best No8. He's consistent, a great leader. All round, he's one guys I've looked up to throughout my career. He has a huge role in the Crusaders team and coming back from a huge injury as well [is impressive].

"I thought he had a really good game last week. He's a guy I really respect along with a lot of the Crusaders players. It's pretty much an All Black pack we're playing against. All round - a great side.


"But what an opportunity for us and that's what you want; in New Zealand, in Christchurch, a place that has rugby running through its veins. People absolutely live for this game; [we're] playing against the side that's the best in the world."

Is this the toughest test in Super Rugby? "At this stage, yes," said Whiteley. "If you look at their results over the last couple of weeks and how they've constantly improved… this is why you play the game – for opportunities like this."

In 2016, the Lions lost to the Hurricanes in the final in Wellington. Last year they lost at home to the Crusaders after livewire flanker Kwagga Smith was red carded just before halftime for a dangerous mid-air challenge. Had things been a little different they might have won, but they arrive here not with a sense of injustice or nervousness but with a sense of opportunity.

"We knew we'd keep most of the guys for this season," de Bruin said as he reflected on the feeling after last year's final. "This season has had its own trials and tribulations. We've had a lot of injuries at the wrong times but all of those things build character."

And that is what this team, easily the best in South Africa and with an ability to play any way (just like the Crusaders), are all about.

Lions team to play the Crusaders in the Super Rugby final at AMI Stadium on Saturday, kick-off 7.35pm is: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrink, Lionel Mapoe, Harold Vorster, Courtnal Skosan, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Warren Whiteley, 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.

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 or Andrew Makalio, Tim Perry, Michael Alaalatoa, Luke Romano, Pete Samu, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Braydon Ennor.