Lions bring big game hunter

Kwagga Smith carries the ball for the Lions against the Sunwolves. Photo: Getty Images
Kwagga Smith carries the ball for the Lions against the Sunwolves. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealanders are often accused of having biased viewpoints about their rugby sides and ignoring the qualities in opposition teams.

Guilty as charged.

It's a natural reaction in the same way South Africans, English, Welsh and Australians concentrate on the progress of their players and what's happening to their sides.

We follow our coaches and players through provincial systems and Super Rugby and concentrate on their abilities and wonder if they'll cut it at the next elite level.

It's a national trait in any country and for many Kiwis those eyes will be on the work of Crusaders openside Matt Todd in the Super Rugby final.

He's another of the Crusaders' centurions and has created a reputation based on remarkably consistent production which has many questioning how his skills are inferior to Sam Cane and Ardie Savea and whether his style would be a better All Black fit alongside his regular colleagues.

Todd has played 14 tests and, while he nudged ahead of Savea on the last trip to Europe, he remains on the edge of squad selection.

In the interests of even-handedness let's consider the similar situation for Albertus Stephanus Smith, or Kwagga Smith, as he is best known on the South African rugby landscape.

The Lions flanker is smaller and younger than Todd but brings that dynamic support play, tackling machine and ball-hunting which is not the standard template for a South African flanker.

He made his reputation on the international sevens circuit with his massive engine and determined support play before switching to Super Rugby with the Lions.

Smith's form was a mixture as he assimilated the different patterns and needs in the long version of the game with an unfortunate conclusion when he was sent off just before halftime in the final last year after he upended David Havili in mid-air.

This season, the 25-year-old has brought stronger production which caught the interest of new Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus and a debut test cap against Wales.

That form hit a semifinal peak when Smith scored twice in a relentless display as the Lions blazed away from the Waratahs after halftime.

Victory has set the Lions for their third successive crack at winning the competition after losses to the Hurricanes in 2016 and the Crusaders last year.

This time the odds are even greater because it's their turn to travel halfway across the globe to play the best side in the series.

Former Springbok coach Nick Mallet accepts the issues but reckons Lions hooker Malcolm Marx is better than any Crusaders forward and has enough grunt from his props and lock Franco Mostert with Warren Whiteley to unsettle the defending champions in scrums and mauls.

When the game gets wider or there are fractured breakdowns, the focus will be on Smith and Todd and the supporting impact they can bring. They are often the links to continue a movement or the destructive counter-puncher at breakdowns where they are able to draw crucial defensive penalties.

That's enough of the fair and impartial observations because the Crusaders are the real deal and have been throughout the series.

While that form will give them a degree of conviction tournament history is not worth any points tomorrow in Christchurch.

They have to start again and the complementary class of their backs brings more confidence about a title repeat than the Lions being able to throw off their runners-up cloaks.

There is some sting from Elton Jantjies, Aphiwe Djanti and Ruan Combrinck in the backs but also an erratic streak about their work and that will be crippling in the intensity of the Crusaders' mosh pit.

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